It will surprise no one that Howard University, perhaps the nation's most prestigious predominately black university, prefers blacks to whites as faculty members.

Still, the university is having trouble formulating that preference in a way that makes philosophical, academic and--above all--legal sense.

Howard, which lost a suit brought by a white French teacher who charged that she had been replaced by black faculty members with less experience, is now asking that the earlier verdict be overturned. Its contention is that it is not required, legally or otherwise, to hire faculty without regard to race.

At one level, it is ludicrous to suppose that historically black colleges, which came into existence because of racial discrimination, should now be required to act as though discrimination no longer exists. Black professors are still at a disadvantage in gaining employment at predominately white institutions; black students find it tougher to get into white schools, partly because standardized entrance examinations tend to underevaluate them. Black colleges continue to exist, in large part, in order to increase educational opportunity for black youngsters.

To argue for colorblindness in faculty selection and promotion--and, by logical extension, for colorblindness in student selection--comes close to arguing for an end to black institutions.

I recall an interview on that subject with Lionel Newsom, president of historically black Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. He spoke of the importance of black colleges to the black student "who has native ability but is hostile to whites and intellectuals" and who "needs a place where people can understand his hostility and at the same time respect and develop his ability."

"Ohio State, more than 10 times the size of our school, does not have a single building named for a black person," he observed. "What does it say to a black student when he sees only whites honored in this way, or when he sees only white portraits in the university's buildings?"

Or, Howard might add, a preponderance of whites on the faculty. As Howard argues in its appeal, only about 3 percent of the nation's PhDs are black. Colorblindness, arguably, could integrate black colleges out of existence.

The problem is not in reaching the widely held conclusion that the black college still has a place in America, or that it should be immune from some of the demands legitimately made of majority-white schools. The problem is saying it in a way that can survive being stood on its head.

For instance, it seems legitimate to argue that black faculty members, taken in general, would be better able than whites to relate to the problems, academic and otherwise, of black students. In addition, they would be better able to provide counsel on a range on academic and nonacademic matters, and also serve a psychologically useful function as role models. In short, they would, as a rule, be better teachers for black students--even if their purely academic and technical qualifications were marginally inferior.

But how can one make that case legally without conceding that predominately white institutions should, by the same reasoning, prefer white faculty, even over marginally superior black applicants?

That's a tough enough problem. Howard makes it worse by staking its appeal on the ground that a colorblind hiring policy would diminish employment opportunities for black academics. That argument comes close to that made by civil-rights opponents of standardized teacher examinations on which blacks score less well than whites: that the educational interests of black students should be sacrificed in favor of job opportunities for inferior black teachers.

That one makes everybody uncomfortable.