HOWARD University is about to undergo another upheaval, but unlike the nearly two-year-old embroilment over the appointment of Lee Atwater to the trustee board -- and all that followed -- the ferment this time comes at the right moment and for all the right reasons. A commission of 34 prominent leaders and faculty, appointed by President Franklyn G. Jenifer, evaluated the reality of present-day Howard University in light of its historical mission and long-held image as the flagship or "capstone" of black higher education. It also used the three-month review period to take a hard look at Howard's capacity to meet the expected challenges and demands of the 21st century. The commission has now produced a report that cites many well-known strengths but also describes a university that is performing far short of the reputation it once enjoyed or the mission it claims for itself.

Consider the following selected findings: six out of every 10 students who enter Howard now drop out. As much as one-fourth of the liberal arts student body was classified last year as "having academic problems." Forty percent of the Medical College's graduates failed to pass Part 1 of their National Board Medical Examination in 1988 and 1989. The law school has approached loss of accreditation within the past five years and only now may be pulling away from that abyss. In the space of 11 years, overall enrollment in the graduate school of arts and sciences has declined by an alarming 50 percent. The commission assessed the School of Human Ecology as marginal based on the rigors of admission standards and academic programs.

What has happened? In a sense, Howard University has fallen victim to its own success and the progress of its graduates on whom much of the university's present glory rests. Howard's monopoly of the academically promising young black high school graduate is under challenge by white institutions whose doors were forced open by the civil rights work of many outstanding Howard law school graduates and by historically black institutions, many of which now are more attractive to the potential Howard freshman because of the contribution of Howard scholars on their faculties.

Transforming Howard to address today's realities and the demands of next century will, in the commission's view, require nothing less than a sweeping restructuring of the university's programs, schools and colleges. Unlike some groups, this commission plunged into the task with gusto. It issued 106 recommendations ranging from calls to close six schools and colleges to the early departure of ossified faculty and administrators. It also boldly recommended abandonment of Howard's take-all-comers role, suggesting instead that admission standards be raised to require a minimum SAT score of 1,000. Perhaps the most far-reaching thrust of the report calls for Howard to shift toward a more scientific, technological and research-oriented university.

Now the views of the faculty, students and administrators are being sought before final recommendations are sent to the president in January for later board review. The debate should be vigorous, but Howard's new direction is clear. This report marks the real beginning of the Franklyn G. Jenifer era at Howard.