I feel sorry for Dayna Bowen Matthew, the first black student to gain admission to the University of Virginia Law Review, and sorrier still for those blacks who will follow her in the next few years.

Matthew, a third-year law student from New York, apparently was on her way to winning a spot on the scholarly journal in head-to-head competition with whites. Two other black students appear to have been on their way to joining her. But the honor came a little late: the university, embarrassed by the fact that no black had made Law Review in the law school's history, has adopted a new affirmative-action scheme designed specifically to bring in blacks.

Said Matthew: "Affirmative action was a way to dilute our personal victory. It took the victory out of our hands. I see this well-intentioned, liberal-white-student affirmative-action plan as an intrusion."

Until the new plan, adopted 52-to-12 by Law Review members, there were two anonymous ways to make the Law Review. One was by grades. Students with the top scholastic averages received automatic invitations. The other was by writing. Any law student could enter a writing competition, with those whose work was deemed outstanding accepted on the Law Review.

The third method, the one that has left Matthew with such a bittersweet victory, evaluates students on the basis of "personal statements" on how their presence would increase the diversity of the Law Review on the basis of race, national origin, cultural background, experience or physical handicap.

The Review traditionally chooses about 25 members on the basis of grades and another 15 on the basis of the writing competition. Under the affirmative-action plan adopted this month, up to five more will be chosen.

Since Matthew and two other black students had passed the first phase of the two-phase writing competition before the new rule went into effect, they can console themselves that they would have made it without special concession. But the blacks who follow them, particularly those who write their way on, will always wonder how they might have fared in open competition. And more to the point, so will the firms to which they later apply for jobs.

The key advantage of making Law Review is that it sets law graduates apart as unusually bright. The more prestigious law firms regularly give extra consideration to applicants who made Law Review during their law school years, and many will not even consider non-Law Review applicants unless they have something special -- family, for instance -- to set them apart.

The glaring danger of the new plan is that it will cast doubt on the true qualifications of all blacks who make Law Review, no matter how qualified they may in fact be.

As a friend who has spent most of her life in academic circles noted: "All this awkwardness could have been avoided simply by voiding the requirement for anonymity in the original competition. Those who make the selection could then select top black students, at their discretion, without having to admit that they had been given a certain preferential treatment."

The reference is to the system, now used by almost all law schools (and Bar Review Boards), that uses numbers rather than names to identify test papers. The idea is to guard against racists who, if they are able to identify a test-taker as black, will automatically downgrade the score.

Says my friend: "However true this may have been at some time and in some places (although in such places no black students would have been enrolled in the first place), nowadays preserving this anonymity works directly against black students. Efforts to give them every break, to make every allowance for them are stymied if nobody can identify them.

"I've lived in, or very close to, academe all my life, and I can remember the extra encouragement always offered to black students, and the teachers' pleasure when these students did well, and I know they were always given every break."

There are blacks who will roundly deny this special treatment, convinced that white faculty are not merely against them but are somehow able to crack the code and find out who they are.

But is it any solution to award extra merit on the basis of ethnicity or, for heaven's sake, physical handicap?

The likely results of the Virginia plan are 1) to reduce the value of Law Review, particularly for minorities, and 2) to penalize those minorities who would have made it on their own.

As Dayna Matthew put it: "I feel it's hurt us more than helped us."