Washington — It was an arduous - but not unusual - Washington morning for Jim Holderman. He had breakfast with a member of a monitoring panel for an international organization, saw the Japanese ambassador at his office, chatted over coffee with the British ambassador at his residence, then headed off for a one-on-one lunch with Egypt's envoy to the United States.
After lunch, Holderman rode to the airport with his aides and boarded a five-seat executive jet for the flight home - and more work. His conversations in that brief half day in Washington had ranged from a discussion of a forthcoming visit to the United States by the Japanese foreign minister to plans for the establishment of a new European Community studies center.
What kind of diplomat is Holderman, anyway?
He is actually a university president who is putting a once-little-known educational institution on the world map in ways that bring it not only more attention but also more financial support.
Holderman, who heads the University of South Carolina, asserts enthusiastically that like its unbeaten football team, USC has momentum.
''We're on a roll,'' he says.
At first glance, the round-faced James B. Holderman comes across as boyish and mild-mannered. But take another look. This bespectacled educator has a stubborn streak. He demands much of his staff and the young interns who surround him. As his university's ambassador-at-large, Holderman also demands a lot of himself. No one can remember when he last took a vacation.
Since Holderman came to South Carolina seven years ago, the number of foreign students and foreign dignitaries studying at and visiting the university has risen dramatically.
One of Holderman's coups was a conference of Caribbean leaders, which he organized last July. It brought President Reagan to the tree-shaded Columbia, S.C., campus for the second time in a year.
A recently issued commission report on college and university presidents showed that over the past 20 years, the authority of the presidency in these institutions has been weakened in most cases. There are, of course, exceptions to the trend. Holderman's university is one of them.
Clark Kerr, president emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley, directed the study, which was sponsored by the Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He argues that many Southern university presidents have more administrative freedom than their counterparts elsewhere, but also have to make their peace with an ''old-boy network'' of local businessmen and politicians. They must avoid making controversial moves whenever possible, Mr. Kerr says.
A political scientist, Holderman keeps in constant touch with key politicians and businessmen. At a recent university football game, he was on the move, chatting with members of the state Legislature and escorting a businessman who is a major contributor to university programs.
As Holderman sees it, his main task has been to convince the faculty and students that the university can become ''a world-class institution.'' He says he and his fellow administrators have tightened admittance standards for USC.
But giving the university a higher international visibility has also raised questions. Citizens writing to newspapers throughout the state ask what's in it for the state. Holderman and others respond that South Carolina depends heavily on overseas trade and on foreign investments in the state. As Holderman put it in a 1978 plan for the university soon after taking office, he wanted to make the institution ''a window on the world.''
Holderman's co-workers say that aside from raising the university's visibility and academic standards, his main achievement has been to bring more effective management to a once-loosely organized system benefitting 30,000 students.
One of Holderman's most difficult and controversial tasks was to fire the man who was both athletic director and football coach, in 1982. Holderman appointed a new athletic director, who, in turn, hired Joe Morrison, a one-time New York Giants football star, to coach the football team. No one is complaining. The South Carolina Gamecocks hold a 7-0 record so far this year and ranks among the top 10 for the first time in 92 years of their football program. USC has beaten three highly ranked teams - Georgia, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame.
In 1981, Holderman made another difficult move, eliminating undergraduate teacher training at the university. In '83, the university president chaired a national advisory board on international education programs, which recommended improvements in foreign-language studies and described the average American's knowledge of foreign affairs as ''woefully inadequate.''
According to James A. Kuhlman, director of the James F. Byrnes International Center at the university, when Holderman reached South Carolina in 1977, USC had ''a lot of strengths, but nobody was willing to get the word out.''
When it comes to Southern universities, those of Virginia and North Carolina have always been better-known and better-funded than South Carolina's. But at a time when many such institutions are struggling to obtain funds, USC is now doing fairly well. Five years ago, 75 percent of its budget was state-supported. Private sources now provide more than half its funds. The university's first comprehensive fund-raising campaign has brought in more than $31 million. Faculty salaries in many departments are beginning to resemble those offerred at Virginia and North Carolina.
The majority of USC's faculty of nearly 3,000 comes from outside the state.
Dr. Kuhlman is one of several administrators who, like Holderman, came to the university from the Midwest. Holderman and Kuhlman both hold PhD's from Northwestern University in Chicago. Holderman is as much a politician as a diplomat, Kuhlman says.
''He gets a network of people going, and he knows how to delegate authority, '' says Kuhlman. ''The joke among the faculty at Northwestern was that Holderman was probably the only politician they ever gave a PhD to.''
Lawrence S. Eagleberger, a one-time third-ranking official at the State Department, who now serves as a visiting professor at USC, says Holderman is a good diplomat. ''Holderman is also a good manager, which most diplomats are not, '' says Mr. Eagleberger.
Holderman's success at the university has led to rumors that he would seek an ambassadorship or a Cabinet-level position in a second Reagan administration.
The university president says he is only interested in being an ambassador for the USC. ''It would take a lot to drag me away from Carolina,'' he says.
Earlier this month, it was evident that Holderman had arrived when he and his wife, Carolyn, hosted a black-tie farewell dinner at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, in honor of an old friend, Egypt's ambassador, Ashraf Ghorbal. Among more than 130 guests attending were 10 other ambassadors, a senator, a Supreme Court justice, singer Pearl Bailey, and Jihan Sadat, wife of the late Egyptian president. Mrs. Sadat will teach a course in women's studies at USC next semester.
Holderman's highest-visibility venture to date was July's two-day conference of leaders and representatives from 15 Caribbean nations and territories. It would be difficult to say at this point precisely what the meeting accomplished in terms of trade and diplomacy. But the Caribbean leaders were clearly pleased to get a chance to discuss their problems with each other and with President Reagan. A representative from Puerto Rico said his island territory got a difficult problem solved as a result of the conference.
A spokesman for the American textile industry said the meeting established a line of communication between that industry and the leaders, which could result in major new cooperation in the textile field.
At the USC meeting, President Salvador Jorge Blanco of the Dominican Republic met some of the leaders of the English-speaking Caribbean for the first time.
The conference clearly helped the university. A private foundation reacted by contributing about $50,000 to the university to continue its Caribbean programs. Holderman argues that many of USC's strengths are in areas that are critical to the Caribbean, such as tourism, aquaculture, and business administration.
''A splashy event like the Caribbean conference is almost as good as the football team for bringing in money,'' says Donald Puchala, director of the university's Institute of International Studies.