BEHIND LAST week's eruption of student protest at Howard University -- a sophisticated campaign that bested one of the Republican Party's master strategists -- lies an enduring paradox: Howard is a conservative university with a liberal tradition. It is, in further contradiction, a center of black intellectual thought and cultural life that was created by whites and that continues to exist, in large part, because of the largesse of the federal government. E. Ethelbert Miller, the director of Howard's Afro-American Resource Center and a man who has been associated with the university for almost 20 years, offered this acid assessment of the university and the position of its president, James E. Cheek: "There is a feeling that this {Howard} is the plantation, and Cheek is the slave who has been put in charge while the master is away." Seen in this context -- of Cheek's need to walk the line between accommodation to the white power structure and service to the black community -- his decision to nominate Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater to the Howard University Board of Trustees begins to make sense. Atwater is one of the more powerful figures in the Republican Party, a man with access to the president and, perhaps, some influence on Capitol Hill. Surely Cheek must have reasoned that Atwater's presence on the board might guarantee an increase in federal funding and access to conservative sources of money. Howard University has always been a peculiar institution, an essentially conservative bastion of the black middle class, priding itself on its position as, so Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post put it in the early 1950s, "America's Leading Negro University" and "America's Center of Negro Learning." That reputation is altogether justified. Though black students now choose predominantly white colleges and universities, Howard has continued to produce significant numbers of the nation's black doctors, lawyers, dentists and professionals. White politicians have recognized the university's position in black life -- in 1960, John F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency, pledged his commitment to equal opportunity for blacks in a speech at the university, as did Vice President Lyndon Johnson a year later. In 1965, Johnson, then president, closed his commencement address at Howard by announcing that he would convene a White House conference on the theme "To Fulfill These Rights." And yet there is something tenuous about all this, for despite the eminence of its graduates, despite its reputation as a center for black learning, Howard has always been beholden to Congress for its very existence and for financial support." Founded in 1867 by an act of Congress that created a university for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences," Howard was originally envisioned as a seminary for the training of black ministers, and then as a seminary and teacher's college. Though the act incorporating the university makes no reference to race and the first students were, in fact, white, within months after its opening most of the students were black. In 1928, Congress authorized annual appropriations to the university (earlier appropriations had had to be authorized each year). That first year, the university received some $580,000. This year, federal aid accounts for some 70 percent of the university's education costs, or $179 million. Black colleges and universities, many founded in the aftermath of the Civil War by white philanthropists, have always been dependent on the generosity of later philanthropists. One thinks of Booker T. Washington on his trips north to secure money for Tuskegee, ready to assure the wary that his institute trained black men and women to labor with their hands. Or of Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man," in which the young unnamed narrator describes the statue of the Founder at the center of the campus. Standing over a freed slave, the Founder has his hands above the freedman's face, whether to remove the cloth that blinds him or to bind it more firmly, the narrator cannot say. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception among some members of the Howard community that Cheek fits that mold. Students remarked that he is a distant figure, visible only at convocations and during graduation ceremonies. Others complained of the lack of "downward communication" from the university administration. It was Cheek's miscalculation, then, not to foresee that so many students and teachers would not be "blinded" -- that they would consider Atwater's nomination and appointment a blatant insult to them and to their idea of what Howard University should stand for. The problem is that Cheek -- arrested himself in the 1950s for protesting conditions at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. -- seems to have forgotten the rich tradition of protest, dissent and political involvement that surrounds black colleges and universities. At Howard, it goes back at least to the 1920s when graduates and teachers participated in the Pan-African congresses, acknowledged by many as influential in creating the climate of political awareness that led to the independence of African nations in the 1950s and '60s. Howard students and faculty members protested segregated lunch counters in this city in the 1940s (I know, because my mother was among them.) In the 1960s, they went south for the civil rights marches. Howard Law School teachers and graduates argued NAACP cases that were instrumental in overturning Jim Crow statutes. And, when Cheek succeeded James M. Nabrit Jr. as president in 1969 (following protests in which students made demands virtually identical to some of those made last week), he referred to the activist movement as "the birth pangs of a new era." Cheek may have forgotten his history, but the students did not. In the eight years of the Reagan administration, blacks have worried that the gains made through the struggles of the 1950s and '60s were threatened -- by Republicans. The students knew that. Given that so many of them came to Howard because it is the nation's leading black institution, given that they are well aware of its proud history, how could they not protest Atwater's appointment to the board? As I consider the protest in its aftermath, I am struck not only by the broad base of students that supported it, but by the sophistication with which their leaders carried out their plan. They controlled media access, insisting that all statements come from a few designated spokesmen and women. When veteran civil rights activists -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Washington Mayor Marion Barry and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy -- came to participate, the students used them to increase media coverage of the controversy. During negotiations with university officials, the students were accompanied by their lawyers. And, while they were concerned about the Atwater appointment, it was only a trigger; just as important were several "bread-and-butter" campus issues that were ripe for aggressive action. "{Atwater} was easy to identify for the media, and his nomination was the issue with the most national significance," explained Reginald Turner, vice president of the Howard University Students Association. "It was not the only issue." Thus, in addition to the Atwater appointment, the seeds for the protest were contained in longstanding student discontent with university housing, course registration and financial aid. Many students have horror stories of trying to get financial aid forms through the maze of the university bureauracracy. One said he had been forced to register for classes three times after he was twice dropped for failure to pay his tuition because the university's financial aid office had not processed his loan forms on time. Another said her parents had been forced to take out a home-equity loan because the office had taken a year to process her application for a student loan. Atwater has claimed that all he wanted was a chance to explain his positions to the protesting students -- implying he was denied such an opportunity. But that isn't precisely true. After the Atwater appointment, Turner and several other students met with him. There were two other meetings that week, one with the students and two black Atwater aides and another with the students, the aides and Atwater. None was announced because, Turner said, "we didn't want a leak until we had had time to establish a position." During the first meeting, according to Turner, Atwater told them -- incredibly, the students thought -- how much he liked rhythm and blues! He said he wanted to work with the students. At the second meeting, the aides "gave us the Lee Atwater story. They said he was concerned. He wanted to help Howard University, and would be free and open with the students," Turner said. The students raised the question of the use of the Willie Horton issue during the Bush campaign. Horton is a black convict furloughed from a Massachusetts prison while serving a life sentence. Many students believe Horton was used in the campaign to play on white racial fears, and that Atwater was behind his use. Atwater's explanation, Turner said, was that the Horton issue was "a political stunt." He said Atwater told them he had not known beforehand that Horton was black and that he had done all he could to ensure that the Republican National Committee did not make Horton an issue in the campaign and to censure local committees that did. This was not, however, the issue that troubled the students most. They wanted to know where Atwater stood on several other matters "that affected black people and the university." After the final meeting with Atwater and his aides, the students met with several political science professors and drew up a list of eight questions. Among the questions were whether Atwater favored an extension of the Voting Rights Act; whether he favored Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court; whether he favored the U.S. invasion of Grenada; what his stance was on affirmative action in general and on the recent Supreme Court decision on Richmond set-asides for minority contractors in particular. And they wanted to know Atwater's position on the African National Congress as a representative of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. "If he said he agreed with the questions we raised, it would have shown him in contradiction to the Republican Party line," Turner said. "If he said he disagreed with the questions, it would give us the ammunition we needed to fire." The students asked Atwater to respond to the questions by Monday, March 6. His answers appeared last Friday on this newspaper's op-ed page. By then, of course, it was too late. The takeover of the administration building had ended with Atwater's and Cheek's capitulation to the students' demands. Howard University is black America in microcosm, a little richer perhaps, but black America in all its diversity and contradiction. If the Republican Party -- aware of Howard's importance in the black community -- had counted on Atwater's presence on the board as part of its outreach efforts to blacks, it sorely underestimated black opposition to the party's past policies. It's too early to tell, of course, but the protest at Howard just might be black America's awakening from the long slumber of the Reagan years. David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post's Book World section.