Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Carbon College and Utah’s Educational Revolt

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Carbon College and Utah’s Educational Revolt


Back in the 1950s, Utah’s budget-slashing governor J. Bracken Lee wanted to close the first institution of higher education in eastern Utah – which he actually helped establish! But Utahns balked at his plan and stopped it. 

Upon its approval in 1937, Carbon College in Price became the first institution of higher education in eastern Utah. During one of his six terms as mayor of Price, J. Bracken Lee was part of a coalition of civic and education leaders who pushed for its founding. These leaders felt that the two-year junior college would lead to higher college enrollment among young adults from Carbon County and the surrounding area, by offering classes close to home that were geared toward technical education.

Despite his previous support, in Lee's first term as Governor in 1951, he set his sights on reducing the state’s education budget. Lee was convinced that education officials were asking for bigger budgets than they actually needed. Initially, he refused to increase per student spending, and in 1953 he sought to reduce spending further by scaling back the scope of Utah’s junior colleges. His plan involved returning three schools that the LDS Church had turned over to the state in the 1930s – known today as Snow College, Weber State, and Utah Tech. Lee's plan would have also closed Carbon College.

Once news leaked, the response from Utahns was swift and decisive: they wanted to save their schools. Even the LDS Church was ambivalent on the plan, agreeing to it because the alternative was to let the schools close. For Carbon College, the plan’s approval would make higher education more difficult to access for its rural students. When Utah's Legislature approved the Governor’s plan, the people of Utah gathered far more signatures than needed to force a referendum on the ballot in 1954 to overturn the plan.

Utahns went to the polls to vote on the measure and voiced overwhelming support for their junior colleges. It was a sharp rebuke to Lee’s fiscal policies and his record as governor of slashing education budgets. The schools Lee sought to close or transfer continue to educate the students of Utah to this day. Carbon College went on to become the College of Eastern Utah, and today it is part of the Utah State University system as USU Eastern, still housed in Lee’s hometown of Price.


By Michael Harris and Aimee Lauritsen for Utah State University Eastern Library & Learning Commons, Special Collections & Archives © 2024


Image: Senior class representatives at Carbon College pose with “Gibby” the rock, 1954. Promising high school students in rural areas were not enrolling in higher education at comparable rates to urban students, leading to a push for junior colleges throughout the state. The proposed closure of Carbon College would have made it more difficult for students in and around Carbon County to get a higher education. Courtesy USU Eastern Library & Learning Commons.

See Susan A. Polster “The Process of Change in Utah's Junior Colleges from 1932-57.” Dissertation, University of Wyoming, 2002; Ronald G. Watt, “The College of Eastern Utah” in A History of Carbon County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society and Carbon County Commission, 1997).


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.