HOWARD UNIVERSITY President James Cheek has done his university, its law school and its students and alumni a terrible disservice. In a dispute over whether nine students had qualified for graduation from Howard Law School, President Cheek overruled the law school dean, John Baker, and his faculty and caved to student pressure in awarding the diplomas. Dean Baker, after only 10 months in office, announced that he will leave the law school in protest. It is an understandable reaction given the circumstances.

Why would a university president publicly reject the judgment of his law faculty on the question of an individual student's credentials for graduation? If the law school cannot set and keep standards, cannot make decisions about performance and cannot even control testing and grading, where is the university heading? The complaining students were not contesting a disciplinary action or upholding some form of students' rights. The issue was simply whether they were academically qualified to graduate. Dean Baker and his faculty are rightly concerned about the dismal record of Howard graduates in passing the bar -- the pass rate in Maryland in recent years is a shocking 13 percent. They insist that required courses be taken and passed. President Cheek apparently fails to see the wisdom of this basic principle.

The university will doubtless survive last week's unwise capitulation, but what of the students, present and future? Is their investment in education at risk in an institution that does not prepare them adequately for the bar? Unless a person passes that test, a law degree is worthless. The class president hailed the defeat of the dean, but are hard-working and high-achieving members of the class pleased to have their degrees equated with those of classmates who did not meet the graduation requirements?

Howard Law School must do better if it is to keep its American Bar Association accreditation. Dean Baker was on the right track in pressing for excellence; it is shameful that he has been derailed by the university's own president. Who will run the law school now? It is bound to be difficult to find someone willing to take on important responsibilities without the authority and support needed to do the job well.