There is a certain malaise pervading student life at Harvard Law School, or at least the life of a segment of students there who have been touched by the cathartic brush of ethnic assertiveness and ethnocentrism.

During this past spring term, a segment of Jewish students at Harvard Law sought to prevent a representative of the PLO from speaking at a conference organized by Asian and American Indian students on the topic of the international status of dispossessed cultures and people. As though this assault upon the openness of academic discourse and free speech at a great educational institution was not bad enough, the Harvard Law School dean, James Vorenberg, added fuel to the fire by announcing that he was withdrawing his earlier agreement to deliver the welcoming address to the conference, owing to the presence of a PLO spokesman.

This failure of leadership by the dean of Harvard Law on the issue of ethnocentrism and its limits was most unfortunate, for I suspect it has helped to open the floodgates to further outbursts against free speech and the openness of academic discourse.

The most recent of these outbursts is noted in The Post's report (July 26) that a segment of black students at Harvard Law has announced a boycott of a civil rights law course next fall term. Their reason, if we call it such, is that the course will be taught partly by Jack Greenberg, probably one of the five most important and creative civil rights lawyers during the last 30 years, who happens to be white.

Dean Vorenberg performed correctly in face of this ethnocentric outburst, attacking it both in principle and as a tactic. The Harvard Black Law Students Association offered little more than intellectual gibberish in defense of its opposition to Greenberg, claiming that civil rights courses require "an instructor who can identify and empathize with the social, cultural, economic, and political experiences of the Third World community."

The intellectual infantilism of this statement is too evident for further comment. The emotional immaturity it reflects is astounding, in light of the fact that the black students who uttered it attend one of the top 10 law schools in America. Black students who require ethnocentric crutches as part of their academic regime have to start growing up -- and soon -- for they will be overwhelmed by the intellectual sophistication and scholarly rigor associated with good and superior levels of learning and performance at places like Harvard Law.

It happens that intellectual sophistication and academic rigor are very much a part of the long tradition of blacks at Harvard Law School. This tradition rests upon the superior law school performance of such men as William Hastie (member of Harvard Law Review -- HLR -- and first black federal judge), Charles Houston (member of HLR, dean of Howard Law School, founder of the NAACP's legal defense program), Raymond Pace Alexander (founder of the National Negro Bar Association in the 1920s and a leading Philadelphia corporation lawyer), William T. Coleman (member HLR, a leading Philadelphia corporation lawyer, secretary of transportation under President Ford, current chairman of NAACP Legal Defense Fund), John Wilson (member of HLR, leading regulatory expert and first black professor at University of California Law School, Berkeley, in early 1960s), Clyde Ferguson (a leading legal theorist and the second black full professor at Harvard Law and first black professor at Rutgers Law School), and Christopher Edley (member of HLR in mid-1970s and currently an assistant professor at Harvard Law).

This legacy of superior achievement at Harvard Law by Afro-Americans since the early 20th century deserves something better than the banal ethnocentrism currently rampant among members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. Members of the association who dissent from this banal ethnocentrism ought to speak out in defense of this noteworthy legacy. Silence is tantamount to denying this legacy.