HYATTSVILLE. — Hyattsville -- Ever since the University of Maryland went through its massive metamorphosis some two decades ago, every new head, whether ''chancellor'' or ''president,'' has proclaimed the university's ambition for ''top ten'' distinction. Even during its present painful economizing, Chancellor Donald Langenberg insists that it has not abandoned its mission to reach that mythical summit.
May I humbly suggest how the university can get there quickly and inexpensively? Declare victory! Unfurl a banner that reads:
TOP TEN! WHEE! Wave it enthusiastically! We're there at last, on top!
Who's going to challenge the claim? Someone here, some body there, may declare the university a leader in, say, feminist studies, graduate work in physics or English, women's basketball, student enrollment, acreage, exotic and marginal courses, number of administrators, professors on leave, press clippings, government grants and the like.
You can measure or reasonably estimate many signs of primacy. But the only way you can determine something so general, all-embracing and subjective as membership in an overall ''top ten'' is take an opinion poll. Few real authorities ever seriously bother with such imprecise puffery.
The temptation to get a high number, though, is certainly universal and the designation, however attained and on whatever basis, bestows pleasure.
Mel Brooks, after one of his movies won a place as a top-ten money maker for the week, is supposed to have phoned Burt Reynolds, another winner: ''Hello three. This is one.'' It's fun to imagine Chancellor Langenberg gleefully greeting, say, the chancellor of the Illinois system so.
We love lists. We love them in sports, entertainment, publishing, education, gossip. One of the world's best-sellers is the Guiness book of records. The university is scarcely alone in falling into rank while seeking rank. Many campuses now happily regard themselves as among some ''top'' grouping.
Practically, high ratings help in funding and in recruiting faculty and students. Sophisticated campuses have long recognized the power of glitzy publicity to enhance their image. Trumpeting quality, in higher education as in automobile manufacturing, is much less expensive, demanding and time-consuming than achieving it.
When the University of Maryland after president ''Curly'' Byrd slipped from its standing as a national football power more than a quarter-century ago, it set itself to becoming a respected and self-respecting academic institution. (President ''Curly'' is supposed once to have acceded to a budget request from the neglected library when urged to make it worthy of the football team.)
Under president Wilson Elkins and vice president Lee Hornbake, we heard little about becoming ''top ten.'' We did hear much about doing the best with what we had.
We should return to that earlier, uncomplicated ideal. It is time to declare ourselves winners in our quest for the ''top ten'' grail; we've been at it long enough. We've achieved all sorts of topness by now. We've garnered enough glittering prizes. If the university is ever to grasp and hold on to valid distinction in classroom, library and laboratory, it will have to do so internally anyway, invisibly, with professional hard work, as is done ultimately everywhere else, whatever trophies are displayed to the world.
Mr. Freedman is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland College Park.