The dean of Howard University's law school, it turns out, resigned not in protest of lax academic standards, but by request.

The sigh of relief you hear is mine -- not because I'm glad to hear that Dean John T. Baker has been ousted but because the law school's accreditation appears to be out of jeopardy.

Baker, whose resignation became public a few days before last week's graduation, had led reporters to believe that he resigned because President Cheek had agreed to intervene in the cases of 13 law seniors who were told they had fallen short of the law school's academic requirements and would not graduate. Nine of the 13 were graduated last Saturday, and the question was whether the decision to grant them their diplomas over law-faculty objections constituted academic interference of the sort forbidden by the American Bar Association's committee on accreditation.

Baker's resignation, ostensibly in protest, coupled with silence from Cheek and Michael Winston, his vice president for academic affairs, reinforced the impression that such interference might have occurred.

But if Wednesday's press conference called by Cheek and Winston didn't exactly clear the air, it did illuminate one important fact: that Baker was asked to resign -- according to Cheek, for "incompetence" and "insubordination" and other reasons "unrelated in the main" to the dispute over academic standards, including his request for a university-paid house and a $25,000 raise over his $95,000 salary.

Now it's the ousted dean who isn't talking, on advice of counsel.

The sad thing is that the week-long flap, which damaged the law school's reputation, however temporarily, need never have happened. If Cheek and Winston had said a week earlier what they finally got around to saying on Wednesday, there wouldn't have been much of a story.

Their belated explanation, undisputed by the now-silent departed dean, is that the dispute involved not academic standards but interpretation of university policy regarding course requirements and student appeal rights -- matters presumably beyond the reach of the ABA accrediting committee.

And why should a columnist unconnected with Howard University feel relief? Because I am too painfully aware of the eagerness on the part of some to discount the credentials of black professionals and black educators. Any hint that black America's flagship university is cutting academic corners is damaging to blacks in general and to that university's graduates in particular -- including its brightest and best.

If credentials conferred by "the Black Harvard" are discounted, then the degrees awarded by historically black colleges everywhere will be viewed as suspect. That may not be fair, but it is fact.

The law school still has serious problems, as evidenced by the dismayingly low success of its graduates who sit for the bar exam: less than 15 percent at the D.C. Bar and comparably low in other jurisdictions. That problem, as intractable as it has seemed in recent years, can be resolved, and I hope the newly appointed dean, J. Clay Smith, will seek whatever help he needs in resolving it -- including university support for tough academic standards.

But I also hope that Cheek (who has not returned a phone call of mine in his 17 years at Howard) will learn that he serves his university badly by going incommunicado at the first sign of controversy.

For now though, Howard, presumably free of the necessity of defending its academic bona fides to outsiders, can turn its attention to its pressing internal problems.

For those who care about the school and what it represents, that's ample ground for relief.