The outgoing dean of the Howard University Law School and the president of its graduating class engaged in a pointed public debate yesterday about academic standards and desegregation during a commencement exercise in which the school awarded degrees to 142 students.
The graduates included nine students for whom university president James E. Cheek had overturned a law faculty decision that they were ineligible to graduate because they had not met all degree requirements.
Dean John T. Baker, who announced his resignation a week ago after Cheek agreed to consider the students' appeals, told an audience of about 800 that he did "not apologize for adhering to the highest standards of excellence . . . . It would be just short of criminal to cheapen your degree."
He added that the school, which is 92 percent black, should teach "not black law or white law but simply the law."
"I don't think Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others fought the good fight to integrate all American institutions except Howard Law School," Baker declared. "We black people are good enough and strong enough to maintain our standards even as we seek the benefits of ethnic diversity . . . . Academic excellence is colorblind."
Later, as other students cheered her, Darcel Clark, the president of the graduating class, said she was "proud" that the class was "instrumental in seeing" that Baker resigned after less than a year on the job.
She praised Cheek and said that Baker "has not been sympathetic to students."
Clark said Howard had a "special purpose . . . to educate black lawyers." She said the way to deal with any problems was to "have a positive image . . . not to change the complexion of the law school."
"We are grateful that we are all here today," Clark said, "because a week ago we weren't sure we would be here . . . . The way we got action was by being active and being fighters."
Cheek, who was not present at the ceremony, could not be reached for comment. However, Alan Hermesch, the university's information officer, said the president had granted nine of the 13 student grievances based on the recommendations of vice president Michael R. Winston who held a hearing on each case.
He said he could not provide the basis for Cheek's decisions, but said the students had contended that the faculty action attempting to deny their degrees was "inconsistent with university policies."
Baker resigned the day after Cheek met with 60 protesting law students and Winston began hearings on the 13 cases. Hermesch said the president did not make his decisions on granting diplomas until four days later, but had told the student group that he would "see to it that each student received justice."
According to students and faculty members, the cases involved students who the faculty said had not fulfilled all course requirements or had slightly less than the 88 credits needed for graduation.
Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a graduate of Howard Law School, was the principal speaker at the ceremony held on the law school campus in the afternoon. He praised the school, but in an interview later steered clear of its controversies.
U.S. Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, spoke to about 2,000 graduates at the university's main graduation ceremony in the morning.
"If you're born black you better be prepared if you are going to play on the court of life not to take time out and complain," Gray said, "but to run faster, shoot straighter and jump higher."
Baker, 46, a Howard law graduate, became dean in July after serving as a professor at Indiana University and earlier as an associate law professor at Yale.
Earlier this year he said Cheek had told him to improve the persistently low pass rate of Howard law graduates on bar examinations. On the Maryland bar exam, the only local test for which individual school results are issued, Howard ranked last among eight area schools last summer, with 8 percent of its graduates passing, compared with an overall pass rate of 58 percent.
In another graduation yesterday, Cardinal John J. O'Oconnor, the archibishop of New York, addressed about 1,500 graduates of Catholic University on the steps of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Also, about 1,000 students graduated from the University of the District of Columbia, which awarded an honorary degree to space shuttle pilot Frederick Drew Gregory, a Washington native