THE BLACK-TIE KID The president of American University has a unique business strategy: go to plenty of parties.
By FERN SCHUMER CHAPMAN

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Reading Is My Armor Straight? (Adler & Adler, $17.95), by American University President Richard Berendzen, is a little like listening to the old Elaine May- Mike Nichols comedy routine in which disk jockey Jack Ego interviews aspiring actress Barbara Musk. Ego drops one name after another: ''Bernard Baruch is a heck of a good guy . . . Bert Russell is a lot of fun . . . Gertie Stein is a swell gal . . . And Al Schweitzer is a lot of laughs.'' Musk, straining to keep up, finally boasts that she's starring in a Biblical spectacular called The Big Sky, which is the life story of God. To that, Ego retorts, ''Funny you should mention that. He happens to be a dear, dear friend of mine.'' Berendzen is as brazen a name-dropper as Jack Ego, and he seems equally capable of claiming Yahweh as his weekly golfing partner. Berendzen looks like something new in university presidents. For many decades, academic C.E.O.s have understood that fund-raising and promotional activities come with the territory, and executives in other lines of work have long since learned that a phone call from academia usually means a request for contributions. Is My Armor Straight? will make plain to those executives just how hard the fellow at the other end of the line is working. The book also puts on display a startling new strategy: Berendzen has promoted American University, not to mention himself, by single-mindedly pushing into the world of pop celebrity. Is My Armor Straight? is a diary of his life during the 1983-84 academic year; the title refers to a suit of armor he once wore to a faculty meeting that he expected to be tumultuous. The title is misleading, however, since the book devotes less space to academic confrontations than to the charity balls, embassy soirees, and talk shows attended by the author in his maniacal promotional efforts. Is My Black Tie Straight? would have been a more appropriate title. Berendzen's strategy may have been influenced by AU's physical propinquity to the glittering worlds of politics and diplomacy in the District of Columbia's Northwest, not far from scores of foreign embassies. (About one-sixth of the university's 11,000 students are foreign.) But the numbers suggest that Berendzen enjoys getting around. Between January 1980 and May 1985 he made 268 TV and radio appearances, and the broadcast media aired 400 news items about him. When he's not boosting AU over the airwaves, he's cultivating Washington at a rate of 11 social functions per week. And he never seems to grow jaded. A White House affair produces euphoria: ''As we whirl about the room, we watch Dom DeLuise clowning at the sideline and Larry Hagman deep in conversation. Gail (Berendzen's wife) leans close to my ear and whispers: 'We've done a lot together, haven't we?' '' 'Indeed we have. And I wonder how much more life will bring us?' '' 'I don't know. But I feel pretty giddy.' '' 'On that, you're not alone,' I whisper, as we glide past Baroness Von Trapp, Ted Turner, Dorothy Hamill, and the Vice President.'' (The book's index reads like Hill & Knowlton's Christmas card list.) All of this scene-making does pay off. AU's board of trustees includes Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi promoter-tycoon. By creating an ad hoc university advisory board, Berendzen also has managed to persuade such luminaries as Walter Cronkite and Farrah Fawcett to lend the school a little of their glamour. These contacts have translated into donations and a higher profile for AU. In the past five years, its endowment has gone from $5 million to $15 million, and in the last couple of years, applications have been increasing by 15% annually. To be sure, there are pitfalls in being a public man, as Berendzen cheerfully acknowledges. Here is the president of American University on a visit to New York City: ''As I cross 57th Street at the Avenue of the Americas, an attractive young woman does a double take as she passes me. So many people in Washington whom I do not know by name -- students, faculty, alums -- recognize me that I have developed a sappy cordiality toward strangers. At receptions, people will say, 'How good to see you again.' And I will reply, 'Yes, and how has your summer been?' As we depart Gail will ask, 'Who was that?' And I will tell the truth: 'I haven't the slightest idea.' So when the young woman glances my way twice and smiles, I say, 'Good to see you again.' ''She frowns: 'Have we met before?' ''Embarrassed and standing in the middle of the street, I stammer: 'Well I thought we had.' '' 'Don't leave yet, honey,' she says, 'Wouldn't you like company?' '' BERENDZEN SEEMS OBSESSED by one thought as he whirls through his schedule. The thought: ''Could today bring a windfall?'' His obsession is magnified by certain demographic fundamentals. Schools that prospered and expanded in the Sixties and Seventies are now having to battle for their share of a shrinking student population. For private colleges like AU, which have neither the academic prestige of a Stanford nor the access to public funds of a University of Texas, the message is clear: find private contributions or die. On the evidence of Is My Armor Straight? Berendzen is a reasonably effective manager. His diary shows him grappling intelligently with such standard academic vexations as faculty feuds, a threatened strike of custodial employees, and student anger over the cancellation of a rock concert. Still, it is surprising that someone of his scholarly attainments -- he spent many years doing serious work in astronomy -- is so much more interested in money than in educational issues. His views on education are cliche ridden, as in ''We must attract high-quality students to the teaching profession.'' On the issue of school prayer: ''We didn't need so much to pray in the schools as to pray for the schools.'' He seems much more interested in the proper greeting of fellow guests and wonders lengthily about the ritual of cheek kissing: ''I never understand if it should be one cheek or two; I do know to make it the right cheek first. When I started attending such functions, I forgot the latter and accidentally pecked women on the nose or chin. Are such matters discussed in Emily Post? Or in The Joy of Sex? Of the first seven women I meet tonight, two are one-sided kissers, three are two-sided kissers, one wants to shake hands, and one is an air kisser -- that is, she kisses the air just behind my right ear.''

You might wonder if Berendzen's single-minded chasing after money is justified in the end by the improved education it makes possible. But most of the money he raises during the year of the diary won't go for any such purpose: it's earmarked for a sports and convocation center. Berendzen has appealed to Khashoggi's edifice complex and the Saudi has forked over $5 million so that his name will appear on the building. Berendzen says of the gift by Khashoggi: ''This transforming structure will last the decades, touching the lives of tens of thousands. The power of words is beyond description, as all scholars know. But we academics need to remember what others take for granted: physical things count, too. It is good and noble that we raise standards and improve our image. But these indices are like clouds: they are real, but you cannot grasp them. The center is different . . . It will stand long after memos have yellowed and speeches have blown in the wind.'' You might also wonder if this soaring rhetoric wasn't for the benefit of the donor, and to some extent no doubt it was. But in some measure it also obviously expresses the priorities of the president of American University. (In other contexts, he describes the receipt of a disappointingly small donation in tones of voice you might associate with some terrible personal tragedy.) And the priorities seem to be at some distance from what we're accustomed to thinking of as the educational mission. Berendzen's problem is that he knows how to raise money for his institution, but he has seemingly forgotten why he's doing it.