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WHEN THE Supreme Court hears the case of Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke next month it will decide an issue of profound importance not only for the future of minority recruiting but for the course of affirmative action programs and the American civil rights movement in general.

The highly controversial issue crosses ideological lines and splits coalitions previously united on civil rights questions. Universities such as Harvard have filed briefs in defense of preferential admissions, while many liberals have sided with those who fear the consequences of so-called "reverse discrimination."

Such fear is unwarranted. The possible temporary reduction of opportunity for a few white males is more than offset by the social benefits of using special considerations for minorities. Such consideration is necessary to help the nation through a transitional period between the pervasive exclusion of minorities from opportunities--an exclusion that has characterized our history thus far--and a future time of racial equality in which affirmative action programs will no longer be needed.

But to deny the relevance of race in admitting candidates does more than contradict that intention. It would threaten the admissions practices of thousands of institutions across the country, by implying the existence of some numerically fixed standard of merit, such as grades and test scores that cannot be affected by other factors. A standard of this kind would suggest, for instance, that geographical distribution and socioeconomic background cannot be used as criteria in admissions, that Harvard cannot accept a poor black applicant from Alabama over a rich white one from New York City if the latter has a numerically better academic record. In view of the inequality of opportunity still present in this country, that is a highly disturbing implication.

A decision in favor of Bakke would open the door to a multitude of lawsuits by students who believe they have been wronged by admissions officers who use criteria other than grades and test scores. Such a decision would discourage admissions committees from examining the roles that the students they select will play in a multi-racial society in need of professionals from a wide range of backgrounds. Even if it would not dissuade institutions from seeking qualified minority students, a decision for Bakke would deprive universities of the recruiting benefits that result from minority admissions programs, which for many minority students represent the only opportunity for fulfilling their dreams. The net effect would be a giant step backwards for the civil rights movement. In this sense, the case takes on a symbolic tone that renders the legal specifics less important.

What should remain clear about this particular case, however, is that in deciding in favor of the University of California the Court would not be forcing every other educational institution in the country to come up with quota programs. It would simply uphold the right of U.C. Davis and other institutions to employ such means to achieve the student mix they consider necessary for a good class and a socially responsible admissions policy.

Race, like geographic and economic considerations, has its place in determining that mix. Moreover, a decision against Bakke would not mandate that minorities hold only 16 places at Davis. Under no circumstances will we see a return to the days of restrictive quotas for minorities--as many non-black minority groups, who favor Bakke, fear.

Sending the case back to California, as the Justice Department and many others prefer, would represent an abdication of responsibility. Like the Marco DeFunis case the Court refused to decide on three years ago, Regents v. Bakke is not a particularly good test case. It is, nonetheless, suitable enough for the purpose of putting judicial weight behind special admissions programs--an act that cannot be stalled much longer.

The real question, then, is simply whether there should be more minorities in higher education and positions of responsibility. It is a question--as Paul Freund, Loeb University Professor Emeritus, put it--that would stir little debate in this country if posed in reference to South Africa, say, or other nations actively following discriminatory policies.

The real answer to that question must necessarily be a reaffirmation of affirmative action and the role universities should play in designing recruitment programs to help move us towards a more equal society.

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