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Gibbs to close its Boston campus

School a leader in clerical training

Following the school's custom, Dean Marie L. B. Sharp (far left) pinned orchids on top Katharine Gibbs scholars. Following the school's custom, Dean Marie L. B. Sharp (far left) pinned orchids on top Katharine Gibbs scholars. (GLOBE FILE PHOTO/1949)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 19, 2008

Long before secretaries became executive assistants, when the girls in the typing pool wore snoods and white gloves, Katharine Gibbs schools groomed women in the arts of taking dictation with shorthand, touch typing, and proper phone etiquette.

With high standards of dress and decorum, the secretarial schools cultivated an image of sophistication and efficiency that crossed generations. Its legions of graduates, once known as "Katie Gibbs girls," were long considered the elite of the clerical field, renowned for their professionalism, poise, and polished appearance.

But traditional secretaries have all but disappeared, and now the venerable institution, founded in 1911 as finishing schools for women to enter the working world, faces a similar fate.

Career Education Corp., one of the country's largest for-profit educational companies, announced Friday that it would close seven of the Gibbs schools, including Gibbs College in Boston, a private two-year school on Newbury Street with about 500 students.

The news stunned and saddened the Boston-area Gibbs community, which had anticipated it might be sold but never imagined the 1917 school would face extinction.

"We're extremely disappointed by the news," said Nancy Sterling, a member of the board of trustees.

"We were hoping a buyer would step forward, and we didn't get a good explanation about what went into the decision or if there were any alternatives."

But trustees and alumni said they are not abandoning hope. They have begun searching for a potential buyer to save the college, which they said had broadened its focus in recent years to meet the demands of the contemporary workplace.

"We have branched out and adapted with the times to become a more career-oriented college," Sterling said.

"I think a lot of people will be shocked by the news, and we are hoping people will work together to keep a great college going."

Gibbs schools will cease admitting students but will remain open until current students complete their programs, according to the firm, which put the colleges up for sale in November 2006.

"We considered these decisions very carefully and took additional time to do so to ensure an outcome that takes into account the vital interests of students, faculty, staff," company president Gary E. McCullough said in a statement.

The Gibbs schools, now called either Gibbs College or the Katharine Gibbs School, have trained generations of young women to enter the working world. Well into the 1980s, Gibbs schools retained their focus on office skills and their classic, pearls-and-pumps image.

In recent years, however, the school evolved to include programs in business administration, computer network operations, digital media, and graphic design. Today, half of Gibbs-Boston students are male.

Gibbs trustees said the college was slated to break even financially this year, had increased enrollment over the past several years, and appeared to have a bright future.

"We were surprised and very disappointed by this action," said Rose Doherty, chairwoman of the college's board of trustees.

"It would be a shame if it disappeared. It's such an important part of Boston history."

Doherty, an English teacher and dean of Gibbs's liberal arts program during the late 1970s and 1980s, said she remained hopeful the college would survive. Despite its traditional image, the college has often adapted to survive, and could do so again, she said.

"There were people who were sad when the manual typewriter came in, and the first male teacher caused great consternation," she said. "Gibbs has always changed to meet the needs of the time."

The Illinois-based company will also close Gibbs campuses in Cranston, R.I., and Norwalk, Conn., and McIntosh College in Dover, N.H., and Lehigh Valley College near Allentown, Pa. It expects programs at nine career-focused colleges to end by December 2009.

Since buying the Gibbs schools in 1997, the company expanded programs in technical fields to attract more men, but said the schools have become increasingly unprofitable.

The company also came under investigation by federal regulators and accrediting agencies for allegedly aggressive recruiting practices and some of its financial aid practices, and was barred for 18 months from opening new campuses.

Last January, the Department of Education lifted the ban, but said it remained concerned about the company's compliance with financial aid regulations.

Student services such as financial aid and providing transcripts will remain in place until current students have graduated or transferred, and will then be centralized and made available online, the company said.

Sterling said the school has laid off 15 employees in the admissions office out of a college-wide staff of 50. The employees have received severance packages from Career Education.

Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association in Washington, D.C., said that career-specific colleges are far more susceptible to economic and market forces than liberal arts institutions.

For instance, many career colleges focused on information technology were forced to close when the dot.com bubble burst, he noted.

"In our sector of higher education, you have to be able to prove you can put your graduates in job opportunities," he said.

Katharine Gibbs, a widow who at one point had to sell her jewelry to pay her rent, opened the first Gibbs school in Providence, and soon set her sights on Boston and New York. An ambitious and determined woman with a fierce belief in women's independence, she became the CEO of three schools before women could vote, Doherty said.

"She was not to be stopped by anything, but she was absolutely beloved by everyone," she said.

Sheila Blecharczyk, a librarian who completed Gibbs's one-year secretarial program in 1965, said the college's reputation as a finishing school did not do justice to its intense and effective training.

She still remembers the click of high heels as 20 young women walked from one class to another without saying a word. "I still think in shorthand," she said.

"There was a finishing of the edges, but the main mission was to give top-notch business training," she said.

She credits much of her career success to her Gibbs education, and said she is sad to see the college go.

"It's certainly the end of an era," she said. "But really, the era ended years ago."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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