At the heart of the desegreation dilemma between the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and several Southern states (chiefly Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) is the role of the black college and university. One of those colleges -- Norfolk State in Tidewater, Va. -- is now under mandate from the Office for Civil Rights to eliminate some of the courses that, it claims, "duplicate" those at Old Dominion University, a predominately white school four miles away.

Understanding this whole controversy involves understanding what Norfolk State College means -- not just to blacks and not just to Tidewater, but to larger principles that American society ought to represent as well.

The primary beneficiaries of Norfolk State are indisputably Tidewater blacks. The school is "like a religion" with blacks, maintains President Harrison B. Wilson. It was founded by poor folks "taking up nickles and dimes" to start a college back in 1935, when blacks were barred by Virginia law from attending white schools. "Without Norfolk State our child wouldn't have gotten a college education" is a refrain heard in the black churches. "We couldn't afford one otherwise."

Norfolk State symbolizes "blackness" in Tidewater even for many black students attending Old Dominion University. It is a social, intellectual and political magnet for the black community. Members of its faculty have served on local city councils and school boards, the state welfare board, and in the state legislature. The college is what every racial, religious and ethnic group is entitled to have: its own point of anchor and port of call.

The battle of this college is more than the battle of a faculty for its educational turf. Its abiding meaning lies in what it offers to black students: transitional work in reading, writing and mathematics (the "I" program); teachers who act as counselors and role models; the sense of being integral to an educational enterprise, not a neglected minority on the margins.

It was both unfortunate and insensitive that the one and only "desegregation" option initially suggested by Virginia Secretary of Education J. Wade Gilley had Norfolk State surrendering its business-administration and accounting programs. For the single greatest impetus to the development of a black middle class is middle-level management jobs. To strip from a black institution programs on the cutting edge of black progress is to point a dagger at its heart.

Why, also, the hideous irony of a federal government -- long blacks' stalwart ally -- now attempting to dismember their schools? Because, at bottom, Washington's powers-that-be regard predominately black colleges as Uncle Tomish, as second-rate and as sanctuaries and refuges for blacks unwilling to face the "stiffer" competition of integrated climes.

A more corrosive notion is hard to imagine. The larger message of the black-power movement in the late 1960s was not really a rejection of integration but a plea that the race problem in this country never could be resolved without a healthy sense of minority self-esteem. But how will black pride take seed with a government that subtly denigrates minority institutions in a way it would never dare to with those predominately white?

American life is inescapably both insular and broad. Chicanos, Jews, Italian and Polish Americans, Catholics, Filipinos and Southerners are all valuable participants in the larger American society, but maintain their indigenous traditions and beliefs. Yet this duality or American life -- mostly accepted with regard to other minorities -- has never been accepted in regard to blacks. If Washington for one minute attempted to dismantle any institution with too high a concentration of Catholics or Jews or Irish Americans, there would be spontaneous and justified outrage. Should silence then, or acquiescence, greet the present attempt?

If this were all state-imposed segregation, it would be one thing. But it is self-selected. This is not the pre-Brown era, where no black could attend any white school. This is not the old freedom-of-choice that, in truth, was not so free. Today, black students can attend white colleges, which badly want them, or they can seek the advantages of schools like Norfolk State.

Maybe, in the millennium, race will be immaterial. Maybe, on some tomorrow, there will be no need for Norfolk State. But today there is: for students who by personal temperament, educational background or cultural pull and preference wish to attend. And their right to do so is every bit as much a civil right as the right to attend an integrated school declared by Brown.

The Department of HEW and the Office for Civil Rights may yet manage to hobble this school. But they ought to ask themselves one simple question first: How many young blacks will cease to find in higher education the road to liberation of the human spirit and to a new and more promising American life?