The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has concluded that Howard University took improper retaliatory action in firing attorney Michael A. Harris after he filed a widely publicized sex-discrimination complaint with the agency.

In a seven-page letter of determination, Dorothy E. Mead, director of EEOC's Baltimore district office, rejected the university's contention that Harris was dismissed on Jan. 31 for poor performance and activities "detrimental" to the university. She said Howard's explanation was "pretextual."

Mead said there was "reasonable cause" to believe Harris was the victim of retaliation because until he filed his sex-discrimination charge he had worked at Howard for five years without his performance being criticized by his superiors.

In a separate action, the agency issued a letter saying Harris has a right to sue in federal court on his original complaint, filed with the EEOC Nov. 1, that favored treatment in pay and promotions was given to women in the university's office of legal counsel. The letter was issued at Harris' request because more than six months have passed without completion of the agency's investigation of his complaint.

Howard has denied the favoritism charge, which involved its former general counsel Dorsey E. Lane and two female employes with one of whom, Harris charged, Lane had a "personal and special relationship." Lane, 65, retired last month.

Mead's determination on the firing quotes at length from a sworn deposition given by Harris. According to Mead, Harris said university President James Cheek met with him Nov. 10 to discuss Harris' complaints, which were first publicized in the Howard student newspaper, The Hilltop, on Oct. 29.

In the deposition, Harris said Cheek told him that on "the very day" the Hilltop appeared with the charges, "he was preparing to transfer and upgrade my position and that he had wanted to get me out of the office for my own personal safety . . . .

"He said that he and Mr. Lane had registered their guns together, he had a lot of guns, but Mr. Lane had an arsenal, and that he didn't want Mr. Lane to have a fit of passion, an irresistible impulse to shoot me," Harris continued in the deposition.

Later, Mead quoted a deposition by William Scott, another Howard attorney, who said Cheek told him that "he was moving to have Mr. Harris transferred out of (the legal counsel's) office because Mr. Harris indicated . . . he wanted to leave that office."

Neither Cheek nor Lane could be reached for comment yesterday. Alan Hermesch, the university spokesman to whom the calls were referred, said Howard has a policy "not to comment on anything in litigation."

According to an EEOC spokesman, lawyers for Howard and Harris have been invited to enter settlement discussions based on the agency's determination. If no settlement is reached, either Harris or the agency could file suit. William Lightfoot, Harris's attorney, said he is willing to take part in the talks. Hermesch said the university would not comment on the matter.

Last winter Harris' case, which received prominent coverage in The Hilltop for several months, was at the center of major student demonstrations against president Cheek. The student editor of the paper, Janice McKnight, was expelled from school the day after Harris was fired on the grounds that she had falsified information on her admissions application in 1979.

In late March the EEOC sued Howard in U.S. District Court, saying it had been unable to complete its investigation into Harris's sex-discrimination charge because Howard employes had refused to discuss it out of fear of reprisals by the school. The agency asked for a preliminary injunction barring Howard from intimidating witnesses.

U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Flannery refused to issue that order, saying that even though some Howard employes were afraid to speak to EEOC investigators, there was "no evidence whatsover . . . that [the] university was intimidating" potential witnesses.