Despite the Supreme Court validation of its controversial affirmative action plan, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. said yesterday the court's recent Bakke decision may force changes in the way it operates in the future.

Company officials said the court's recent Bakke decision may force changes in the way it operates in the future.

Company officials said the court's refusal yesterday to hear a challenge to its sweeping affirmative action plan only validates the 1973 consent decree worked out with the Labor Department and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

But that agreement expires in January and AT&T officials said the action yesterday did not answer all of their questions as to how far private industry can go in favoring members of one sex or race in order to alter its employment mix.

Company attorneys said the Supreme Court's Bakke decision last week created uncertainties about how AT&T should proceed when the consent agreement expires. In the Bakke case, the court ruled that while race could be used as a factor in determining university admissions strict numerical quotas were not permitted.

The landmark consent decree under which the company has been operating expires in January after having been in effect for six years.

"After that January we will have to do more looking at the Bakke case to see what impact that has," commented Donald Liebers, director of equal employment and affirmative action for the 767,000 Bell System employees.

He said AT&T will keep its commitment to affirmative action, but that the rules may well be different after the consent decree expires - particularly with respect to the so-called "affirmative action override" which drew the opposition from the company's unions and led to the court challenge in the first place.

"We would not expect to continue the override after the consent decree expires in January," said Liebers. The company will, however, continue "affirmative action to achieve racial and sexual balance."

"The Bakke case leaves some questions open about affirmative action programs by private employers," said Scott Macey, an AT&T attorney who works with Liebers, Maccy noted that a footnote to the Bakke ruling specifically exempted programs that were the result of consent decrees.

The AT&T program, as it currently opperates, has elements that could be construed as quotas - something that the Supreme Court, in the view of many, ruled out when it said that Allan Bakke had unfairly been denied admission to the University of California at Davis medical school because the school reserved 16 of 100 openings for minority applicants only.

Operating since January 18, 1973, the AT&T plan - which was negotiated with the government - sets numerical targets for 15 job classifications with nearly 300 jobs categories within those classifications. These in turn are broken down by sex, and in turn, each sex is divided into five racial categories.

"If we have 100 openings, we have targets as to how these should be broken down," said Liebers.

If a "target" is not met, the consent decree requires AT&T to "pass over candidates with greater seniority or better qualifications in favor of members of the under-represented group who are at least "basically qualified.'" This is known as the over-ride provision.

Could there be situations where, because the company is looking to meet a target, that a person could find he or she is being passed over just because of race or sex?

"That's right," said Liebers. "There are times during a year where this could be the case in order to fill a target."

He added that everyone must still meet the basic qualifications. And Liebers noted that what could be viewed as "reverse discrimination" does not always get directed at white males. In order to lower the percentage of female operators or clerical personnel, males have been given preference over females for these jobs.

"All employes of all races and sexes have at one time felt the impact of affirmative action within the Bell System," he said.

The unions, which brought the case, said the override was used more than 28,000 times during 1973-74 alone, and that it violated the seniority rights they had negotiated with AT&T in collective bargaining agreements.

But U.S. District Court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham in Philadelphia dismissed the unions' suit, saying the AT&T consent decree was a "striking example" of how Congress intended to achieve equal employment goals in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That is the decision the Supreme Court left standing yesterday.

How has AT&T's affirmative action program worked out? Lievers gave a few examples:

In 1972 there were 338 women in middle and upper management ranks in the Bell System. By the end of 1977 there were 1,077. This represents an increase in female representation in these jobs from 2.15 percent of the total in 1972, to 6.37 percent of the total at the end of last year.

In second-level management jobs, such as supervisors and accounting managers, women's repressntation has increased from 4.830 or 11.2 percent of the total in 1972 to 9.731 or 18.9 percent of the total in 1977.

Among operators, men represtated only 1.38 percent of the AT&T total in 1972. Last year this percentage went up to 5.94 percent.