The White House yesterday ordered the Education Department to retreat from a ruling it made last week that would have barred most colleges from awarding scholarships based solely on race.

Senior officials said White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu called the author of the ruling, Assistant Secretary of Education Michael L. Williams, to a meeting with lawyers from the Justice Department and other administration officials to discuss modifying the policy in the face of an uproar inside the administration and among civil rights and education groups.

Williams, who also spoke with President Bush yesterday on the issue, has scheduled a news conference today to announce the change but it was unclear how far he would go in backing off from his original ruling. One administration source said Williams would state that scholarships aimed at a specific race that are funded by private sources would be ruled permissible but public funds for race-specific scholarships would be banned.

The continuing controversy over the scholarship ruling threatened to eclipse Bush's nomination yesterday of Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, to be education secretary. Asked his opinion of the ruling, Alexander, a moderate Republican now serving as president of the University of Tennessee, said he didn't want to comment until his confirmation hearings.

But he said the University of Tennessee has provided such grants, and they have "helped minority students who were poor to get a college education." He said the administration would clarify the new policy and then "wait until the Supreme Court decides the issue, because it is ultimately a constitutional question."

At the White House meetings, lawyers in the office of White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray and the Justice Department's office of legal counsel said they thought Williams's interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent court rulings as prohibiting "race-specific" scholarships was correct, sources said.

But Sununu, backed by White House political advisers and most of the Cabinet, ordered a reversal of the policy on the grounds that it contradicted the president's support for increased educational opportunities for minorities and undercut his efforts to draw more minorities into the Republican fold.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan, the highest-ranking black in the administration, lobbied other members of the Cabinet yesterday to urge the president to revamp the policy and make a strong statement supporting black education.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp has already suggested publicly that the policy should be altered, and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh reportedly told Sununu on Friday that Williams's interpretation was only one of several that could be made of the legal precedents and suggested a less radical approach was legally defensible.

Bush again refused yesterday to be drawn into the public debate. Despite statements by a spokesman that he was "disturbed" by the Williams ruling, the president declined to answer questions on the subject.

Asked whether he wanted the Education Department to alter its ruling, Bush, answering questions on the Persian Gulf at the time, said, "That is off the topic and I won't take the question."

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater had said earlier in the day that the president had decided over the weekend that he wanted the Education Department "to take a new look at this."

Fitzwater said Bush was "very disturbed about the ruling in the sense he believes these scholarships are important to minorities and to ensuring opportunity for all Americans to get a good education." Fitzwater added, "I want to make it clear that the president is very concerned about it. He does believe that minority scholarships have been important for economic growth and development, for educational opportunity."

Asked if it were fair to conclude Bush wants the policy reversed, Fitzwater said, "It is being considered." Another senior official said, "We are rolling this grenade back into the Education Department's back yard . . . whence it came. We expect them to dismantle it."

A senior official said Sununu phoned Williams yesterday morning to ask him to the White House. Sununu reportedly suggested to Williams that the timing of his ruling last week, without White House involvement or approval, had put Bush in a politically awkward position.

Asked why the White House did not simply repudiate the Williams finding, a senior official said Bush "knows him and did not want to do that. We are trying to find a way out that does not look like a criticism of Mr. Williams."

Williams, officials said, knows the president slightly but has a longer friendship with Bush's oldest son, George W. Bush. The two have known each other since they were both youngsters in Midland, Tex.