The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, a member of the original U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said this week that the agency he served for 15 years lacks leadership and integrity and ought to be dismantled.

Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, who was chairman of the commission for the last four years of his tenure, was there when the agency helped to pass some key civil rights legislation. "We changed the face of America with those bills," he said Monday.

Now, he says, the commission "has been gutted. There's no leadership or the kind of integrity it should have," and it's time to fold the tent.

He is correct, and not just because of the controversial present chairman, Clarence Pendleton Jr. The commission has lost its soul, its independence and its purpose. President Eisenhower (not exactly a flaming liberal) proposed its creation to "examine allegations that Negro citizens" were being victimized by discrimination in voting, housing, employment and social policy. And though it was given no enforcement powers, its investigations and recommendations were to function as the conscience of the administration.

And that is just what it did under four presidents, who accepted as a matter of course the political independence of the agency. Then came President Reagan, who fired the commission members to replace them with people who shared his own limited view of the government's role in fighting discrimination.

Since then, despite a compromise that gave Congress the right to appoint some members of the commission, it has been a travesty of its original purpose.

Its early chairmen, including Hesburgh, John Hannah and Arthur Fleming, saw the commission's role as advancing the revolution toward full equality for minorities and women. Under its present chairman it has become a voice of counterrevolution. Special efforts to advance the status of blacks are, according to Pendleton, noth more than a "new racism." "Comparable worth" is "the looniest idea since Looney Tunes."

Nor is it just a matter of different approaches for different times. The present commission seems far less interested in fashioning new methods for reducing race and sex discrimination than in discrediting the old ones. Not only has it proposed no major policy or program to ease the discrimination that still affects black Americans, but it has acted as though the principal victims of discrimination in the country were white men.

If it were only a matter of a particular commission majority's being out of step with the aspirations of disadvantaged minorities, it might make sense simply to wait for a Reagan successor to restore some balance of views.

But the fundamental damage Reagan has done to the commission cannot be undone. For all of its pre- Reagan existence, the commission was independent of the sitting president, the terms of its members overlapping those of the executive. A number of presidents were stung by the commission's criticisms, but they respected its independence. Reagan didn't. He fired the commissioners who consistently disagreed with him and replaced them with people who echoed his own views. He has installed a panel of sophisticated foxes to propose chicken-coop policy.

And while another president could, under the Reagan precedent, remove these conservative members and replace them with members more sympathetic to the cause of minorities, the commission's independence -- its value as the White House conscience -- is gone.

It has now become just another federal agency, its members serving at the pleasure of the president. It is no longer a cutting edge for change, but a drag-anchor; no longer a part of the solution for what ails minorities but a part of the problem.

Hesburgh is right. It's time to end the charade.