A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals here yesterday approved the Department of Education's settlement of a decade-long court fight over desegregation of the North Carolina state university system.

A fiery dissent by Judge J. Skelly Wright accused the department of "benign neglect" toward desegregation and said Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell should be held in contempt of court for violating previous court orders in accepting the plan.

But by a 2-to-1 vote, the panel dismissed an appeal by civil rights lawyers seeking to revoke the June, 1981, settlement. It called for the state to add new programs for its five mostly black colleges, but did not require dismantling duplicate programs at nearby white schools, as government officials had demanded previously.

To revoke the settlement "would run counter to the court-approved consent decree of a court of another circuit, would be contrary to the rules of comity and would erect an unseemly and irreconcilable conflict between federal courts," Judge Howard T. Markey wrote for himself and Judge Edward A. Tamm in a seven-page opinion.

Wright's 47-page dissent charged that the majority and U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt made the "inexcusable error" of letting the department "shirk" its obligations under federal civil rights laws and "evade" prior decrees of the D.C. federal courts.

"The Department of Education now appears once again to be pursuing a policy of benign neglect in enforcing desegregation of higher education," he said.

Since 1970, Pratt has overseen a private suite seeking to force the government to enforce the civil rights laws in state higher education systems. He ruled last year that he did not have jurisdiction over the North Carolina settlement because it was filed in a federal court there. Wright said it was the North Carolina court, not Pratt, who lacked jurisdiction in the case.

When Bell announced the settlement it was criticized because the Reagan administration accepted a desegregation plan that had been rejected as inadequate by prior administrations.

Joseph L. Rauh, the veteran civil rights lawyer who challenged the settlement, said yesterday that he will either ask for a rehearing by the full Court of Appeals or take the case to the Supreme Court. "Judge Wright's dissent is clear, direct and correct," he said.