Civil rights activists yesterday asked a federal judge to hold Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. in contempt of court for failing to act on a plan to desegregate the North Carolina university system.

The petition charged Califano with "blatant disregard" of an earlier court order that gave him 90 days ending Feb. 28 to accept or reject North Carolina's proposal, adding it was "the fourth such defiance of this court's orders within the last 10 months."

Joseph L. Rauh Jr., attorney for a group of students and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, noted in the petition that proceedings against North Carolina have been dragging for nine years.

HEW found in 1970 that the colleges were racially segregated. In 1973 Rauh asked the courts in a successful suit to cut off federal education funds to North Carolina and five other states unless they came up with plans to desegregate. The five other states -- Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma and Arkansas -- have come up with acceptable plans but North Carolina has not. An estimated $90 million in federal funds is at stake for North Carolina.

"As contemptuous as North Carolina has been of HEW's efforts to secure such a plan, defendant secretary [Califano's] contempt of this court has been even worse," the petition said.

In an interview, Rauh said Califano is "caught between the pressure from the civil rights forces and our lawsuit on the one hand, and political pressures from [North Carolina Gov. James B.] Hunt and [University chancellor William] Friday on the other."

Califano is already unpopular in the tobacco-growing state because of his anti-smoking campaign and political observers have seen his protracted negotiations over desegregation as an attempt to avoid antagonizing the state's Democrats any further.

On emerging from a meeting with Friday, Califano said he had turned over the petition charges to HEW lawyers. "We are much better off resolving these issues by negotiation rather than by litigation," he commented. Court action, he said, means that the students suffer, while negotiation results in a faster solution and preserves "education values as well as the values of desegregation."

Friday said he had found the talks with Califano "profitable" and the two agreed that meetings would continue.

Califano gave tentative acceptance last May 12 to a North Carolina plan that would boost black enrollment at the system's predominantly white colleges and raise white enrollment at the five mainly black ones. It would equalize teacher salaries and attack duplication of programs at the white and black colleges. Rauh attacked the plan as inadequate.

A series of court hearings on the issue then led to the 90-day deadline for Califano to make a final decision, imposed by U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt of the District of Columbia.