Woodbury U. to Seek New Start at Burbank Site

Times Staff Writer

After 103 years in downtown Los Angeles, Woodbury University packed lock, stock and lectern into moving vans bound for Burbank on Tuesday, hoping to rebuild its enrollment and reputation on the former Villa Cabrini Academy campus.

Woodbury officials said they believe that the move from Wilshire Boulevard to Burbank--home of movie studios, Mickey Mouse and Johnny Carson--will help the school shake its image as a secretarial college.

During a modest ceremony outside its downtown building, school officials accompanied by 98-year-old Lola Elkins, a 1908 Woodbury graduate, said farewell to the institution as they pried a school plaque off the wall. It will be installed in a place of honor at the new Burbank campus.

"I remember coming downtown in a Red Car from Glendale to go to class," said Elkins, who graduated with a business and a secretarial degree. "Downtown was a lovely district then. Now, well, I'm afraid to come here by myself."

Established in 1884 as the Woodbury College of Business Administration, the coeducational school was the gateway to business and secretarial careers for generations of Los Angeles area residents. During its heyday, Woodbury had more than 2,300 students. One of its most famous alumnae was Helen Gurley Brown, who parlayed her Woodbury secretarial science degree into the editorship of the glossy and glib Cosmopolitan magazine.

Stressing the Academics

In 1974, the college changed its name to Woodbury University. It began to play down its secretarial roots and emphasize its position as a four-year, degree-granting business and design college.

School catalogues stressed Woodbury's architecture, accounting, computers and design programs. The school launched a program leading to a master's degree in business administration. It received accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, recognition that its academic program met stringent standards.

Woodbury's enrollment continued to decline, however, and by 1980 the school enrolled 1,300 students. Only 750 students now attend the school, where undergraduate tuition runs about $6,500 a year.

To determine what the problem was, the school launched a survey of parents and students who had turned down admission to Woodbury. Results revealed that potential students still considered Woodbury a school for secretaries.

Many respondents said they chose other schools because of downtown traffic congestion, lack of parking and the unavailability of student housing. Parents expressed fears about sending their children to a downtown campus, implying that high crime rates and the swelling ranks of homeless contributed to their decisions, said William T. Wagoner, assistant vice president for academic affairs.

"Our research showed that we would continue to have a declining enrollment as long as we remained in downtown Los Angeles," Wagoner added.

In 1982, in a move to save the school, college administrators and trustees began discussing moving the school to a suburban location.

"We did a lot of soul-searching," Woodbury University President Wayne Miller said. "We firmly believe that if we can provide a more traditional setting, we can resolve some of the negatives."

After an extensive search, Woodbury officials found the empty 22.4-acre former campus of Villa Cabrini Academy, a Catholic girls' boarding school that closed in 1971. In the mid-1970s, California Institute of the Arts temporarily used the campus before moving to Valencia. The last occupant of the Burbank facility was a Lutheran high school. The $6.5-million purchase price Woodbury paid for the campus is being financed by the sale of Woodbury's downtown facility.

When Woodbury students arrive at their new campus for classes on Oct. 1, they will not find ivy-covered walls. Instead, they will discover a sprawling campus dotted with olive and palm trees that shade Spanish-style buildings.

With a gym, a swimming pool and a weight room, Woodbury will offer its first sports program, which initially will field intramural teams and someday, possibly, intercollegiate teams.

It will cost $14.4 million to move and renovate the campus, officials said. Eventually, the school hopes to build more dormitory space for 600 students, a parking structure for 1,100 cars and a student union.

Woodbury officials plan to launch an aggressive recruitment campaign. Plans call for increasing enrollment to 1,300 students within the next five years.

"I really hate leaving downtown," said Robert Febres-Cordero, a senior studying international business. "Being downtown, you get the whole flavor of the business atmosphere. But having a real campus, with plenty of parking, is going to be a wonderful change."

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