IN most cases it would be safe to assume that the man waiting alone in an airport terminal for a defeated basketball team was a player's father, or maybe the head of an athletic department.
But when the Gators of San Franscisco State University flew home from the NCAA quarterfinals one midnight in March, they were greeted by a smiling Chia-Wei Woo, their university's president.
The Shanghai-born, American-educated physicist might by reputation be more readily placed among Nobel laureates and theories on quantum physics. Before taking his job at San Francisco State, he was chief administrator of the highly regarded Revelle College of the University of California at San Diego, where he was also a physics professor. But his decision to leave the field he loved to head a large state university whose students are mostly commuters with part- or full-time jobs reveals something about his dedication to education. That he would wait late into the night for an unsung basketball team tells something about the importance Chia-Wei (pronounced Jah-Way) Woo places on integrating education and everyday life.
''A good general education is so important,'' he says. ''What a student expects is preparing him for a good job may be useless in 20 years. But we've become so practical, we see everything in terms of a quick payoff.'' Educators, Dr. Woo adds, must convince students that the liberal arts and what they teach about being well-rounded individuals are ''well worth the time. It's an investment.''
Seated on a couch in a corner office that overlooks the multicolored stucco of San Francisco's Sunset district in one direction and the hodgepodge of architecture that is San Francisco State in the other, Dr. Woo speaks with enthusiasm about the post he has held since last fall.
''This is reality,'' he says, waving an arm to indicate a campus with 26,000 students, 57 percent of whom are women and 45 percent of whom are minority. ''We reflect the diversity of San Francisco. It's very colorful.''
The ethnic mix was one of the qualities that most attracted the naturalized American to his new school. San Francisco State has the only school of ethnic studies in the country. Dr. Woo says he hopes the university will someday have a national institute studying America's multi-ethnic society, complete with strong research ties to developing countries.
''It would be at the opposite end from the Hoover Institute,'' he says, referring to the politically conservative policy studies center about 40 miles away at Stanford University. The smile is now a full-fledged grin. He adds, ''The Bay Area could use a balancing institution.''
That light sense of humor - some here call it corny - was just one of the qualities that drew the school's 13-member presidential selection committee to Dr. Woo. ''His energy, optimism, and enthusiasm - that's what set him apart from the other candidates,'' says Becky Loewy, chairwoman of the academic senate and professor of psychology, who served on the committee. ''His openness and willingness to meet with any group are also very new and exciting,'' adds Professor Loewy, who has been at San Francisco State since 1959.
Dr. Woo's predecessor, Paul Romberg, received high marks from several faculty members, but was described as ''remote.'' And before him, former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa is best remembered for the combative stance he took against student protesters during the school's protracted 1969 strike. Against that 15-year backdrop, faculty members say they find it refreshing to have a president whom students know and like well enough to greet by name.
The new president's ancestry is also seen as a strong attribute at a school whose student body is 20 percent Asian. Born in 1937 to an American-educated father, Woo came to the United States in 1955 and received a bachelor's degree in physics in one year. He went on to receive his master's and doctoral degrees from Washington University in St. Louis - where he also met and married his wife. ''In my generation it was required to meet in St. Louis,'' he quips. By that time Woo had been in the US just over a decade, ''and there was no place for someone with my education to go back to.''
Today only a faint accent and an occasional, very Asian angling of the head hint of Woo's Chinese upbringing. But he maintains a keen interest in China and the East: as president-designate of the National Association of Chinese-Americans, as an ''attache'' to the Chinese Olympic Committee for the Summer Games in Los Angeles, and as an adviser to a number of Chinese schools and educational organizations, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
At his school he is promoting both student and faculty exchanges with the People's Republic of China, and boasts about the business school's US-Japan Institute, which he calls a ''model'' for encouraging commerce and understanding among nations.
Dr. Woo is a college administrator who remains an active academic. He is directing several doctoral students from UC San Diego, as well as pursuing his varied research projects. He also maintains a keen interest in public education. But, despite what he sees as some positive signs, Dr. Woo says he is not hopeful.
''Unless the man on the street really appreciates what education means to society as a whole, we won't see tremendous improvements in education,'' he says. ''People will have to be willing to open their pocketbooks . . . but too many out there don't seem to think of their children, let alone their grandchildren.''
So for Dr. Woo, bringing everyday life and education closer together is not just altruism, but a means of promoting broad-based support for schools. Still, his efforts most often maintain a hint of serious academics.
When the volleyball and basketball enthusiast announced his plan for a basketball team ''booster'' club, it was not for the traditional alumni fund- and spirit-raising organization. Rather, the club would consist of students and faculty members who could tutor basketball players concerned about falling behind in their studies.