The higher education system's campaign to defeat the initiative to take the sales tax off food is an opportunity to convince the public that the state's universities and colleges need more money to cope with increasing enrollments.

That's what Regent Michael Leavitt told nearly 600 professors gathered at the University of Utah Friday for a faculty breakfast hosted by U. President Chase Petersen.Higher education officials plan to raise tens of thousands of dollars to tell voters not only to vote against the initiative, but also to push for more tax dollars for Utah's universities and colleges.

The dual message is helping to make the initiative campaign more complicated - and possibly more confusing - than the failed effort two years ago to pass three other tax initiatives.

"Anytime you have an opportunity, there is risk," Leavitt said during an interview. "There's more at stake here for higher education than simply that initiative. While it would be devastating if it passes, it does present an unprecedented opportunity to tell our story."

What's at stake, the longtime political consultant told the U. faculty Friday, is the level of quality the higher education system will be able to provide to an ever-increasing number of students.

"It will be impossible to meet (the demand) without making serious compromises either in quality or in the number of students who could attend our campuses," he said.

Even if the initiative fails and the $300 million higher education budget is not reduced by an estimated 10 percent, there won't be enough money to overcome that dilemma without a substantial budget increase.

The state Board of Regents recently decided to ask the 1991 Legislature for $61.5 million in new state funds, including nearly $11 million to accommodate more than 4,000 new students.

Leavitt acknowledged that using the initiative campaign to seek more money for higher education leaves the system open to criticism from initiative supporters.

Merrill Cook, chairman of the Independent Party that gathered enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, has already used the higher education system to illustrate waste in government.

Making university professors teach more hours is one of the ways Cook has suggested the state could find enough money to cover the estimated $110 million it will cost to take the sales tax off food.

"He will raise those issues anyway. This is a better opportunity to answer them," Leavitt said during an interview. Unlike the 1988 campaign, however, many of the issues raised will probably be about higher education.

That's because the higher education system receives the biggest share of sales tax revenue and stands to be hurt the most by the initiative. Public education, which does not depend on sales tax, would be untouched.

Public education has received plenty of attention from the Legislature, especially during the last session when teachers threatened to strike unless they got more money.

Now, Leavitt believes, is the time to shift that attention to higher education because the same overcrowding that hurt elementary and secondary schools is now beginning to affect universities and colleges.

"The 1990s must be the decade of higher education," Leavitt said during his Friday speech. "We simply must have the focus of the state to meet that challenge."