It isn't hard to imagine why an able official who happens to be black -- specifically, Michael L. Williams, chief of civil-rights enforcement at the U.S. Department of Education -- might be hostile to affirmative action programs. Sometimes, in some eyes, such programs cast doubt on the legitimate achievements of just such persons as he.

It is hard, however, to imagine why an administration sympathetic to minority aspirations would abruptly change a key policy on minority scholarships without wide and careful consultations. Heck, they might even have consulted George Bush.

We are told that Williams decided on his own that race-designated scholarships are against the law. He discussed the idea informally with "friends" at the White House. But according to the White House press office, the president of the United States was "not aware of the strategy {interesting term, by the way} prior to its undertaking."

Williams's edict is described as a routine adjustment to recent Supreme Court rulings. But the issue came to public notice only lately during the comic scramble of colleges playing in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona to propitiate the gods of political correctness. Since Arizonans recently rejected a statewide Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the pressure is on to shun sports contests in so benighted a jurisdiction.

So the contestants vowed to set aside some of their bowl proceeds for scholarships for blacks. Williams immediately warned them that this may violate the civil-rights laws.

In general, the niggling overregulation of colleges and universities in any respect is gratuitous and unsound. It is doubtful that Williams or any other federal official is more competent than college officials themselves to decide who, on what terms, ought to benefit from scholarship funds, however dedicated. If the scholarships were publicly financed, a legitimate question of state action would arise; but even that would not be dispositive.

This sort of meddlesomeness now has a lengthening history, made no more appealing by its whimsicality. A decade or two ago, it was all the rage in federal "compliance" circles to push institutions of higher education, especially public universities, to enroll more blacks and recruit more black faculty. Now one of the natural devices institutions thus pressured chose to meet the new goals is off-limits, unless it responds directly to a legal mandate.

The basic flaw, however, is an absurd rigidity. Why the use of any dedicated scholarships, if privately funded, should be off-limits is more than I can see. If a college offered scholarships only to blacks, say, or youths of Oriental derivation, one could see a case for federal admonition. But such exclusivity is unknown, unless it is at so-called "historically" black institutions, which have enjoyed a special status in the eyes of federal regulators.

It is said that only those scholarships dedicated by race and actually administered by the institutions fall under the Williams ban. In practice, however, few scholarships, save perhaps those for fullbacks or power forwards, are awarded exclusively on the basis of a single qualification -- race or any other.

Even where the threshold qualification is race (as it might be musical talent, place of origin, mathematical brilliance, high SAT scores or whatnot), other considerations, certainly academic promise and character, come into play. As they should.

Williams's decree violates the spirit and the seasoned wisdom of Justice Lewis Powell's principle, enunciated in his controlling opinion in the Bakke medical-school admissions case: While race cannot be the only standard on the basis of which a benefit is conferred, it may be one of a number. And Powell did not try to tell college administrators exactly how any one consideration should be weighted vis-a`-vis the others.

The policy enunciated by Williams is arbitrary, abrasive, intrusive and rigid. A Constitution, said Justice Holmes, needs play in the joints. So does a federal policy that affects so intimately the hopes of young people and the discretion of our colleges and universities.