WASHINGTON. — Every so often the right man is given the right job in a time of great need, and the entire society benefits. I think such is the case regarding the appointment of Lamar Alexander as secretary of education.
This former governor of Tennessee and current president of the University of Tennessee system knows that education lies at the foundation of America's security, its social well-being and its ability to compete economically. We have needed desperately a secretary of education who has the guts to espouse the programs and commitment of resources that will enable George Bush to lay valid claim to being ''the education president.''
Mr. Alexander has wasted no time in showing that he is a ''stand- up'' guy who will speak out for what he believes is right -- and wise. He has told senators that the first thing he will do, if confirmed, is discard the confusing new Education Department restrictions on race-based scholarships. Mr. Alexander dared to say that Michael L. Williams, the black assistant secretary for civil rights, erred when he arrogantly and gratuitously ''ruled'' that scholarships set aside for minorities violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Mr. Alexander said one principle that he will follow is to encourage ''variety'' in college student bodies. Here is a man who knows that the University of Tennessee is a far greater system today than it was in the years when neither I nor any other black Tennessean or black anything could attend the all-white colleges. He knows that the benefits of diversity go far beyond what blacks have done for the university's football, basketball and track teams.
He also knows that some scholarships are given to blacks by way of atoning for the long periods when blacks were denied admission, whether rich or poor. He sees scholarships as a way of saying to disadvantaged youngsters, ''We want you in.''
Mr. Alexander takes the proper stance that there should be only limited federal intervention in college financial-aid decisions. The head of a college in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, knows better than any Washington bureaucrat ever can what grants must be made to remedy age-old injustices, or to produce a student body whose very diversity is an educational force.
Mr. Alexander said boldly that he does not want to see ''disadvantaged Americans, especially minorities'' discouraged from going to college, so he asked universities to give scholarships on the basis of the policies that existed for many years before the foolish Williams caper.
We can hope that once into the budgeting process, Mr. Alexander will halt the shell games in which the White House pretends that more is allotted to education than actually is the case. In the fiscal 1992 budget, Mr. Bush's boys pulled off a bit of bookkeeping sleight-of-hand to make it appear that education spending will rise by $2.5 billion. The real increase will be about $800 million, hardly enough to sustain the current level of federal support for education.
Lamar Alexander may already think that we expect social and political miracles from him. Some of us do.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.