With even its leaders unable to reach a consensus on the future course of big-time intercollegiate sports, the NCAA this week begins 18 months of public debates and studies intended to reshape the role of sports in higher education.

The start of these national forums will lead to the consideration of major reforms at the January 1989 convention. Those potential reforms include freshman ineligibility, a shorter basketball season, basing scholarships on need and basing the number of scholarships awarded on graduation rates.

Some in the NCAA hierarchy expect those potential reforms to overshadow the across-the-board cost-cutting measures that should be approved by the membership at a special convention Monday and Tuesday in Dallas.

"The forum idea has a possibility of being one of the most important things to happen in the NCAA," said University of Maryland Chancellor John B. Slaughter, chairman of the reform-minded Presidents Commission and moderator of Monday afternoon's three-hour program.

Four college chief executive officers, including Chancellor Ira M. Heyman of California-Berkeley and President Frank E. Horton of Oklahoma, will give their views on the proper role of sports within higher education. President Anthony F. Ceddia of Shippensburg State and President Richard Warch of Lawrence University also will speak.

Six other college officials -- Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan, Texas women's athletic director Donna Lopiano, Virginia faculty representative Alan Williams, Minnesota President Kenneth H. Keller and Kentucky State President Raymond Burse -- will respond to those remarks. The remaining hour will be for delegates' questions.

"It's an opportunity to deal with fairly hard issues," Slaughter said. "The easy ones have been dealt with. Everybody, at least publicly, is for integrity. These issues {to be discussed in the forums} are at the core of where intercollegiate athletics is in higher education."

Many were anticipating reform occurring more quickly, especially after a group of presidents and chancellors, led by Chancellor Charles Young of UCLA, last fall proposed ruling freshmen ineligible, eliminating spring football practice and sharply curtailing scholarships, seasons and coaching staffs.

Slaughter, as he showed in deciding the fate of basketball coach Lefty Driesell in the aftermath of Len Bias' death, does not act hastily. But he also is aware the Presidents Commission can't afford to drag out the forum process more than 18 months.

"To stretch it out longer than that, we would lose some of the imperativeness that has to do with it," he said. "It'll take that long to do the studies and answer the questions that will be raised."

Even some long-time NCAA critics agree on this one.

"I don't view the activity as dilatory. It's better characterized as cautious progress," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the Washington-based American Council on Education, which has prodded the NCAA on reform.

"They want to make sure the consensus is there . . . and not get too far ahead of the troops."

The troops are divided, even on the 44-member Presidents Commission. Some see the no-scholarship Division III level as proper; others see the Ivy League as a model; others see little wrong with today's big-time programs without the abuses.

At the annual convention last January, there was sharp disagreement between the presidents and the Division I-A athletic directors, who saw their bosses making decisions without consulting them. They appear to be in agreement now, especially after getting the Presidents Commission to consult with them on not reducing football scholarships. That sport -- along with basketball -- produces the revenues to support the rest of the program.

Nevertheless, the Pacific-10 Conference has proposed cutting football scholarships from 95 to 90 in Division I-A. A Presidents Commission survey in March showed 56 percent of presidents and chancellors favored the move, with 39 percent opposed. The American Association of Football Coaches has been lobbying against that as well as a proposal to eliminate one full-time assistant coach and one graduate assistant or volunteer coach.

The effect of the various football proposals would widen the gap between Division I-A, which encompasses the schools with the biggest programs, and I-AA. There are proposals to eliminate spring practice and to reduce scholarships in I-AA.

Otherwise, the proposed across-the-board reductions in scholarships include all nonrevenue sports and, for the first time, limiting the season in any Division I sport to 26 weeks. Also, the amount of contests allowed in six sports -- baseball, soccer, golf, tennis, volleyball and track -- would be reduced.

Women's groups are opposing the scholarship reductions because, they say, the women would lose a larger percentage of scholarships than men. According to Lopiano, every I-A conference would cut women's scholarships by at least four more percentage points than men's. In her conference (Southwest), the men would lose three of 156 scholarships, or 1.9 percent; the women would lose eight of 69 or 11.8 percent. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, the figures are 2.4 percent for men, 11.3 percent for women, according to Lopiano.

"We've got to be sensitive to that," Slaughter said, adding that in "most of the sports" to be cut, women now have more scholarships than men. He says that is why, in making the totals equal, the women would suffer a larger percentage cut.

Also on the agenda is a proposal to restore the maximum number of basketball scholarships from 13 to 15. But the NCAA says the chair plans to rule it out of order because it is not a cost-cutting measure. Sponsors say they will appeal on the floor and attempt to get it considered.