By Laurence Arnold and Mary Childs
John Sperling, who battled for accreditation and respect for the University of Phoenix, the upstart for-profit college that he founded in the 1970s to expand higher education to working adults, has died. He was 93.
He died Aug. 22 at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to a statement on Apollo Education Group’s website. No cause was given.
Through Apollo, the Phoenix-based publicly traded parent of University of Phoenix, Sperling became a billionaire. Forbes magazine estimated that his net worth peaked at $1.7 billion in 2005 before declining to $1.2 billion in 2012 and less than $1 billion in 2013, as his unorthodox, decentralized university faced renewed scrutiny of its finances and efficacy.
“Sperling’s intensity, tireless work ethic and self-professed ‘joy in conflict’ found fertile ground in the often controversial for-profit higher education industry that he founded,” according to a memoriam posted by the company, where his son, Peter Sperling, is chairman.
With more than 100 locations around the U.S. and an online-only study program, the University of Phoenix is among the biggest U.S. for-profit colleges, with a student population that peaked at 470,800 in 2010, according to its annual reports. Enrollment declined to 300,800 in early 2013.
Sperling’s revolutionary approach to education — emphasizing group discussion of university-approved curriculum and credit for life experiences — was belittled as “McEducation.” For-profit colleges continue to be scrutinized for their low graduation rates and the low repayment rate of loans by their students, compared with traditional colleges.
Even so, some Sperling innovations, including online classes and schedules that cater to working adults, have been widely accepted and adapted.
“Sperling was probably the first university president to develop a model that was predicated on customer first,” Richard Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview for a 2010 article.
After rising from poverty to professorship, Sperling became convinced in the 1970s “that there was an untapped market in providing higher education for working adults,” he wrote in his memoir, “Rebel With a Cause” (2000).
A longtime donor to Democratic candidates, he personally lobbied in Washington against proposals by President Barack Obama’s administration to limit recruiting and access to federal financial aid.
In his book, John Sperling described periods of depression, existential crises, psychosomatic maladies and adulterous affairs. He applied his idiosyncratic thinking and wealth to long-shot initiatives such as cultivating crops in salt water.
Having survived both prostate cancer and the loss of function in one kidney, he took 30 pills a day on a regimen set by the now-defunct longevity clinic that he established, the Kronos Center. Unwilling to lose his beloved dog, Missy, he funded pet-cloning research by Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
A critic of U.S. law enforcement’s war on drugs, he helped fund state ballot initiatives to approve medicinal use of marijuana and to steer nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.
John Glen Sperling was born on Jan. 9, 1921, in the Ozark Mountains town of Willow Springs, Missouri, the last of five children of Leon and Lena Sperling. (A sixth child died in infancy.) In his memoir, Sperling called his father a failed farmer and “a bum” and said his father’s death, when Sperling was 15, “was the happiest day of my life.”
He began high school in Kansas City and finished in Portland, joined the merchant marine and spent two years working on a freighter. Soon after resuming his education in 1941 at San Francisco City College, he entered military training with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He had learned to fly combat fighters when World War II ended and wasn’t called to duty.
In completing his undergraduate education at Reed College in Portland in 1948, he began to think of himself as being “in an unfair competition with the privileged sons and daughters of the middle class — often the upper-middle class.”
He received a master’s degree in English history from the University of California at Berkeley and, on a three-year fellowship, his doctorate in economic history from University of Cambridge in England.
While teaching humanities at San Jose State University in San Jose, California, Sperling led a faculty strike in 1968. Its failure cost him the presidency of a union representing employees at California’s public universities.
In 1972 Sperling embarked on a federally funded project to bring educational opportunities to police officers and teachers working with troubled youth. With two colleagues he created the Institute for Professional Development, operated in conjunction with the Jesuit-run University of California San Francisco. Sperling said he launched the effort with $26,000 left over from a land investment gone bad, and by converting his house into a rent-free office.
Following a fight for accreditation from the Western Association of Schools & Colleges, Sperling in 1976 took his idea for a full-fledged for-profit university to Arizona, part of a different accrediting region.
More battles followed, as Arizona’s public universities objected to the University of Phoenix’s application for accreditation. Sperling prevailed and devoted a chapter in his book to what he called “The War in Arizona.” Once accredited, Sperling began expanding — to California again, then New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Hawaii.
Sperling started an online campus in 1989 and stuck with it through unprofitable years. The Apollo Group went public in 1994 on Nasdaq.
Sperling’s two marriages ended in divorce. He had his son with his second wife, the former Virginia Vandegrift, who said in 2010 that raising a family had held little appeal for her ex- husband.
“He was so driven,” she said in an interview for the 2010 article on Sperling and his company. “He always felt that a family would be a distraction. His theory is, you can’t be a genius and have a family.”