The controversy over the nomination of William Bell to be chariman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reminds me of those "sensitivity sessions" that used to be the rage back in the '60s. You remember them: the haggard college president would go off to a country retreat with protesting undergraduates, and he would play the role of oppressed student while they recited the lines of the beleaguered president.

An updated revival of sorts of the role-reversal sessions is now playing in Washington. The issue prompting it has been President Reagan's nomination of Bell to head the agency chiefly responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, but the best lines have been about the underlying affirmative action issues submerged in the debate.

The National Urban League's Maudine Cooper has played the part of cold-eyed personnel interviewer reviewing Bell's file in this drama. "He is not qualified, not qualifiable," she said peremptorily the other day. "Simple as that."

In the role of Bell defender, rather uncomfortably one supposes, is White House personnel chief Pendelton James. "He's a non-lawyer, he doesn't come out of the NAACP or the civil rights movement, but he's a businessman, he's black, he's conservative, and we feel he's capable."

When Robert Cullen of the Associated Press followed up with the question of whether Bell was the best qualified person for the job, James responded irritably, "I don't know what 'best qualified' means. I'm sure that there are people better qualified than you for your job, but you have it, and he has our nomination."

Bell, you will recall, is 55 years old, a graduate of the University of Michigan's business school, former insurance agent, real estate salesman, magazine distributor and for the last five years the president of his own executive recruiting firm, Bold Concepts Inc., of which he is the sole employee. By his own admission, Bold Concepts has not placed a single person this year and had a total of only $500 in assets two years ago when Bell filed a corporate report with the state of Michigan. Optimistically, the firm had issued 50,000 shares of common stock with a par value of $1 per share, but Bell acknowledged to Democrats on the Senate committee considering his confirmation that he and Bold Concept Inc.'s vice president, his wife Patsy, still own all of them.

Bell was evasive when quizzed by the Democrats about his views on the quiet efforts by the Reagan administration to loosen affirmative action rules and curb the powers of the employment commission itself. Their fear that he would be an easy pushover in these deliberations is what has really fired the opposition of Democrats and civil rights groups. But Bell has offered the example of his own life of bold dreams and modest accomplishment as evidence of his good faith and intentions. He knew racism firsthand, he said, having faced a hostile and restricting environment when he sought work in Detroit's corporate world in the 1950s after business school. His proudest achievement has been his ability to survive in that atmosphere of racial antagonism, he said.

In truth, Bell probably could not pass the "effects test" for proving crippling racial discrimination that the administration is now so intent on weakening. The "effects" of racism were very different for his other black schoolmates at the University of Michigan in the '50s. They were able to surmount the obstacles and have become successful judges, lawyers, doctors and teachers. Lowell Perry, a fellow Republican and schoolmate of Bell, went on to head a division of Chrysler and, for a while in the Ford administration, to be chairman of the EEOC. Roger Wilkins, who was also attending the university at the time, became an assistant U.S. attorney general, Ford Foundation executive and now journalist.

But the exchanges in the debate over Bell's fitness for office seem to me to have produced some rare flashes of insight on what has been a fuzzy and emotional debate over affirmative action. For one matter, civil rights groups, in breaking with long precedent and coming out publicly to oppose a black nominee for high office, are acknowledging that standards and qualifications are important factors in decisions about hiring. This is in contrast to the different message they had been sending to an aroused public in their emphasis on changing standards and eliminating the tests used to screen applicants.

On the other hand, the comments of James seem to be belated acknowledgment by the White House that simple objective standards have rarely, if ever, been the only criteria for employment. Who would argue that Attorney General William French Smith would score highest on a constitutional law exam given to all attorneys in the nation?

It is still hard to understand, nonetheless, what message the White House intended to deliver to minorities and women when it picked Bell to run the anti-discrimination agency. Last week, the vote on Bell was postponed at the request of the White House amid strong indications that confirmation would be denied by the Senate committee considering the nomination.

Unsurprisingly, Bell sees himself as the victim of large, hostile forces that ignore his merits and capabilities. He was telling reporters in Detroit the other day that the controversy over him was all a calculated effort to embarrass Reagan "by discrediting his appointee -- me." It is not to quarrel with the charge that there has been an orchestrated campaign against him to suggest that there are plenty of reasons other than the embarrassment of Reagan for opposing his appointment. But it is unlikely that Bell, at this point in his life, will ever come around to facing those facts about himself. However, he may have, unwittingly, made a small contribution to history. His nomination has served as catalyst for an ironic reversal of roles and arguments that could sharpen thinking and debate on an important issue.