The University of Virginia's venerable Honor Committee - traditional guardian of trust and integrity in this academic community - has become embroiled in a raging internal controversy involving charges and counter-charges of lies, racism and deceit.

At the center of the dispute is the 21-year-old committee chairman, Ken M. Easley of Henry County, Va., the only black on the 11-member panel and the target of an impeachment drive by other members of the committee. They claim he is incompetent, has mismanaged committee affairs and once threatened to kill a fellow committee member.

So bitter has the dispute become that many faculty members and students say the viability of Virginia's 135-year-old honor system and its ability to function may become seriously eroded.

Flanked by his lawyer and the executive secretary of the Virginia NAACP, Easley appeared at a press conference this morning to deny the charges against him, calling them "slanderous innuendo, distorted facts and defamation of character."

He was referring to a list of 14 specific charges drawn up against him by other Honor committee members last November, but not made public until this week. They included charges that he ignored social obligations by failing to respond to an RSVP invitation to have lunch with a dean and missing cocktail parties, that he had called another committee member a liar, that he tried to use his position as Honor Committee chairman to get parking privileges and the allegation that he threatened to kill another committee member.

The dispute is one of the most serious in the committee's history and it comes at a time when honor codes at colleges throughout the nation are on ever shakier grounds, in part because they are viewed by critics as too rigid in the way they treat offenders.

Here at Virginia, students voted overwhelmingly last spring to affirm the honor system and its single-sanction penality - expulsion - for anyone convicted of a violation.

But the ongoing dispute between Easley and the other members of the committee has once again called the system into question.

"This toy gotterdamerung puts into further question the honor system itself, its viability and its capacity to function within the context of the university community," said student Victoria Heard in a letter to the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily.

"The infighting which has developed jeopardizes the ability of the committee to function, and, even worse, weakens its credibility with the university and the public," wrote a medical student, Beverly Rogers.

Honor Committee member Marguerite Hunter disagreed, in part, saying, "I think the system still functions. But as the student population gets bigger, it's hard to convey the spirit and the tradition to 15,000 people as opposed to 5,000. We try to do this as best we can, but obviously this doesn't help."

At the University of Virginia, the Honor Committee, which administers the honor system, is composed of the student body president of each of 10 schools within the university. The president of the College of Arts and Sciences is always the committee's chairman and the vice president of the College of Arts and Sciences also sits on the committee. Easley contends that since the students of the College of Arts and Sciences elected him president, other members of the Honor Committee have no authority to impeach him.

At his press conference today, Easley did not mention race as a factor in the dispute and said that the primary issue is justice. But sitting next to him, Jack W. Gravely, executive secretary of the Virginia NAACP, said the issue of race is "very much a part of this. It's very subtle. I'm not saying the issue is to get him because he is black, but Ken's blackness is very much a part of it."

Other members of the committee denied emphatically that race is in any way a factor.

Addressing some of the other charges, Easley produced a copy of a letter he had written to the dean regretting having missed the luncheon and, on the cocktail party issue, said, "I personally don't feel that I have to attend every cocktail party."

He said the threat last June 8 to kill fellow committee member Steve Farrar occurred during a "heated discussion" and was not a serious threat. Farrar insisted later today that the threat was serious.

Likewise, Easley denied ever having called committee member Hunter a liar, although Hunter insisted he did in a dispute over some Honor Committee assignments.

On the parking issue, Easley said it was tradition for Honor Committee chairmen to get parking privileges. University officials confirmed this but added that Easley received no special privileges this year.

Easley also denied a raft of thechnical charges concerning improper notification of meetings, scheduling of trials, and other administrative business of the Honor Committee.

Committee members said the dispute with Easley has been simmering since last summer but increased in intensity last fall when he was presented with a list of accusations and asked to resign. He refused.

Then, in December, members of the Honor Committee, including Kent Sullivan, went to a university psychology professor for consultation about functioning and his behaviour under what they said was Easley's mental stress.

Easley promptly denounced the move as a "political tactic" to make him look bad.

Committee member Jeff Sedgwick said it is not clear whether the committee has the authority to impeach Easley as chairman but that there will be some attempt to resolve the situation at a meeting Sunday night.

"We're interested in preserving the system and in preserving the sudents' faith in the system," he said. "Ken's ability to deal with people has been one of the main problems."

Virginia's honor system, adopted in 1842, states in part that "Acts of lying, cheating or stealing which are committed at the expense of another are precisely those acts which cannot be tolerated in any community if its members are to live in close harmony together."