Let's say it was chemistry, not basketball. Let's say that some of the best and brightest chemistry majors on campus conspired to cheat on a few exams, and that the public allegations of such cheating profoundly embarrassed the school. And let's say that at the height of this embarrassment it was revealed that one of these chemistry students -- one so gifted that his academic achievements might bring honor and alumni contributions to the school -- had been secretly paid to attend the school, and continued to be paid throughout his stay there.

In the face of such scandal, what would the school do?

Discontinue the chemistry program?

In his battlefield decision to amputate the basketball program in the face of allegations of point shaving by players and the subsequent admission of recruiting violations by coaches, the president of Tulane University spoke clearly and dramatically.

"The only way I know to demonstrate unambiguously this academic community's intolerance of the violations and actions we have uncovered is to discontinue the program in which they originated," Eamon Kelly stated in New Orleans. When he was asked how long this discontinuance might last, Kelly said, "I cannot see any circumstances in the foreseeable future that would warrant bringing back basketball."

I think the decision is well-intentioned.

And I think it is precipitous.

It is frontier justice: shoot first, ask questions later.

There is little question but that the entire Tulane basketball program -- from the coaches who recruit, to some of the players they recruited -- is a bad scene. And I can understand the impulse to burn it down and be done with it. The shock value alone of such a bold move might deter other coaches, players and administrators from doing what they know is morally, ethically and legally wrong; one sure way to stop the cheating is to eliminate the team. If recruiting is not a cesspool, then why do so many people say it smells so bad? The pressure to win -- and in so doing to get rich and famous, institutionally as well as personally -- is nearly pervasive on the college level. In many schools with big-time athletic programs the athletic departments are like feudal states, functioning semiautonomously; they don't see academics as the purpose of the institution, but as a tax their players must regrettably pay.

But you can have good academics and good athletics, too; they're not mutually exclusive.

Stanford is the shining example of their coexistence. Other schools like Michigan, Virginia and Notre Dame come quickly to mind.

And you don't have to cheat to win.

Haven't coaches like Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and John Thompson proven it?

You don't have to have the kind of coach who hands a kid a bag full of money to get him to come. You don't have to have the kind of kid who takes the bag first, and the points later. There is right and there is wrong, and we can legitimately expect a college student to know the difference.

They're poison. Cut them away.

But cut them away judiciously.

The president of Tulane isn't cutting. He's defoliating. It's the fire this time.

"I hate to see Tulane give up," Andy Geiger, athletic director at Stanford, said yesterday. "I know they have had bad mistakes in their program, but giving up eliminates correction. The measure of any athletic program is whether it has intrinsic value to those who participate in it, and whether it serves a purpose for the university at large. Does it have educational value? These are internal policy questions. The reasons they're dropping basketball are external; they're embarrassed."

Geiger thinks Tulane has taken the easier choice by dropping basketball. "I think the better leadership position is to correct what's wrong," he said. "I'd hire the best people I could, run a clean program, and prove it can be done."

Academically, Tulane is highly respected. It is one of those schools, along with Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Rice, that ought to be able to be compared to Stanford. It should not sanctimoniously flush its basketball program like this. College athletics provide much good for many people. They often have a salutary effect on a school's morale, identity and ability to attract funding, and they have always been an essential component of a liberal arts education. If you say to me that the combination of unsavory recruiting and the concurrent lowering of academic standards for selected athletes is a blight on colleges, I say to you that reform is preferable to revolution. Where is it written that a school must choose between competing for the national championship and literacy?

When the Rev. John LoSchiavo, president of the University of San Francisco, made the decision to drop basketball at USF in 1982, it was only after he had publicly warned his athletic director he would not tolerate any more violations of NCAA rules. "We had been put on probation two years in a row, and I said I'd never go back and apologize again for a program that had gone amok," LoSchiavo said. "I said, 'Next time, the program would go.' It was an extreme act, but I never regretted it. I didn't drop the sport forever. I announced then that when circumstances were right, we would bring basketball back." Next season USF will again field a team in the Division I West Coast Athletic Conference.

I think Tulane has the chance to learn from USF.

It doesn't have to drop the sport forever. It doesn't even have to drop it for now; it can get rid of the poison without killing the patient.

You can run a clean, honest program if you want to.

You just have to want to.