SHOULD THE Department of Health, Education and Welfare be ordering state university systems to reach certain racial "goals" by fixed dates - or else? The "or else" in this case is a threatened cut-off of federal funds, and, prodded by a federal court, HEW Secretary Califano recently did issue such an order. He published "guidelines" for achieving the racial desegregation of the university systems of six states: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. Gov. Mills Godwin was quick to observe that HEW's action would reduce higher education in Virginia to a "federal numbers game," and we must confess that we are troubled by the idea of government's setting these numerical "goals" for college desegregation.

But special circumstances exist in these states. In the past their university systems were all formally and officially segregated by race. In 1969 HEW found them still largely segregated; state officials hadn't taken action to dismantle the old dual system. HEW ordered the states to do this, then largely ignored its own order during the Nixon and Ford years - with the result that the states ignored it, too. In Virginia, for example, two-thirds of the black students enrolled in 14 state colleges attend just two - the two majority black ones. Other states have comparable statistics. These conditions are not just a consequence of individual students' preferences or a reflection of geographic location or academic skill. They are in part a reflection of state officials' decisions concerning such things as the site of new construction and the best place to locate new academic programs. HEW wants such decisions used in the future to desegregate the university systems. So does the federal court that has been watching this matter for several years. In fact HEW, in a sense, was responding to federal-court pressure to act.

The HEW plan calls for a significant increase within five years of the black enrollment at predominantly white institutions and white enrollment at predominantly black ones. It also calls for racial diversity among the faculty, administrators and governing boards of the state systems.

HEW's approach to this problem seems modest and cautious. Raher than impose a specific plan on the states, it has left the details of the desegregation process to state officials and educators. This should produce plans tailored to a specific situation and backed by a broad consensus. Most important, Mr. Califano has promised to be flexible and to consider extenuating circumstances if states fail to achieve a goal. These are good guidelines for the states and HEW to follow.