John G. Sperling, a poor boy from the Missouri Ozarks who survived a cruel childhood to become a college professor and a billionaire with an idea for a university that launched a revolution in higher education, has died. He was 93.
The self-described “unintentional entrepreneur” who founded the for-profit behemoth University of Phoenix, Sperling died Friday of complications following an infection at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., said former University of Phoenix President Jorge Klor de Alva. Sperling had homes in the Bay Area and Arizona.
Sperling was a tenured professor at San Jose State University in 1972 when he hit on the idea of an alternative institution for adult learners whose needs were not being met by traditional colleges and universities. He formally founded University of Phoenix in the mid-1970s after moving to Arizona and built the business into one of the world’s largest private higher education systems.
It now has an enrollment of 241,000 students, many of them virtual learners who never step inside a classroom.
“He had an enormous impact,” said professor William G. Tierney, an expert on for-profit education who co-directs USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education. “What he realized was there were working adults who wanted to take classes at a convenient time and location and who were willing to pay money for it.... As an idea, it was really quite remarkable.”
Although profit-making schools had existed for 100 years, mainly for people seeking to learn a trade, Sperling greatly expanded the concept, creating a degree-granting institution that aimed for the breadth of any conventional university. His efforts met with ridicule from academics and state regulators who said it was unethical to make a profit off students and derided him for lowering standards for a diploma. Critics dubbed Sperling’s enterprise “McUniversity.”
On the verge of bankruptcy several times in the early years, Sperling persevered because, he insisted, profits were the ultimate measure of education success.
“For years the troops would say, ‘Sperling, are you in this to improve education or make money?’ And I had a mantra: If we don’t make money, we won’t improve education. You understand that? You have to have money to survive,” he told the Arizona Republic in 2000.
Nearly 40 years later, it still has many detractors, including government officials concerned about low graduation rates and other high student loan default rates. But even critics agree that Sperling’s vision transformed higher education, which has adopted many of his innovative ideas, particularly distance learning. The for-profit sector now comprises 11% of higher education in the U.S., Tierney said.
Sperling was also an iconoclast outside the education sphere. His wealth enabled him to pursue offbeat causes, from financing initiatives to decriminalize marijuana use to research that could extend human life. He even backed a company to clone pets, eventually succeeding at replicating his beloved dog, Missy.
“He was a man who was not afraid of anything but boredom,” said Klor de Alva, who knew Sperling for more than 40 years.
One of six children, John Glen Sperling was born on Jan. 9, 1921, in a log cabin in Willow Springs, Mo. His childhood was an ordeal. When he was 7 he developed pneumonia and required surgery to drain his lung. The doctors operated on him using only a local anesthetic, rendering him so weak he was in bed for a year.
He said his mother was the most important person in his life, while describing his father as a failed farmer who regularly beat him. When Sperling was about 10 he warned his father that if he ever hit him again he would kill him in his sleep. The beatings stopped. When he was 15, his father died. Sperling called that day “the happiest day of my life” in his memoir, “Rebel With a Cause” (2000).
He graduated from high school unable to read, finding out much later that he was dyslexic. His real education began when he joined the merchant marine and was introduced to literature by fellow sailors, who lent him works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dostoyevsky as well as political tracts by Marx. He embraced socialism.
After serving in the Army Air Forces, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Oregon’s Reed College in 1948. He received a master’s in psychology from UC Berkeley and, in 1955, a doctorate in 18th-century English mercantile history from King’s College at the University of Cambridge.
He was hired to teach at Ohio State University but grew to loathe academic culture, especially faculty parties featuring “either a tuna or a macaroni casserole and cheap red wine,” he wrote in his memoir.
In 1960 he moved to San Jose State to teach humanities. He led a faculty strike in support of black studies programs that turned many of his colleagues into enemies.
Although a fiasco from a labor organizing standpoint, it taught Sperling an important lesson. “Ignore your detractors and those who say that what you are doing is wrong, against regulations, or illegal,” he wrote.
In 1972 he ran a federally funded project to teach police officers and schoolteachers about juvenile delinquency. When his students told him they wished they could take more classes and earn degrees, Sperling pitched the idea to his superiors. They shot it down.
Convinced he could succeed, Sperling took a leave of absence and approached the University of San Francisco, which saw his experiment as a potential boon to its ailing finances. Taking $26,000 in savings, Sperling affiliated with the university and started the Institute for Community Research and Development in 1974. It quickly gained popularity with evening and weekend classes convenient for working adults and an egalitarian approach that banned lectures, emphasizing learning as a partnership between teacher and student.
In 1976 he moved to Arizona, which had few regulations to stymie his expansion. Although Arizona officials and members of the higher education establishment fought his efforts to gain accreditation, he prevailed and named his enterprise University of Phoenix.
In 1989 he bought a defunct distance-learning company, laying the foundation for a boom in online learning as the Internet began to expand. By the early 2000s Phoenix Online was generating millions of dollars in revenue, and online learning has been embraced by traditional colleges and universities.
“I can’t think of an individual who has single-handedly created more viable higher education opportunities for more individuals than John Sperling,” said Guilbert Hentschke, chairman emeritus of USC’s Rossier School of Education.
Sperling later renamed the company Apollo Education Group. After taking it public in 1994, enrollment and revenue grew wildly and so did its founder’s personal wealth. By 2006 Forbes said his fortune exceeded $1 billion in revenue. The Chronicle of Education described the maverick as “perhaps the wealthiest educator in history.”
He retired in 2004, only to return two years later as executive chairman. He retired again in 2012.
His survivors include his son, Peter, who is company chairman. Twice divorced (he once described himself as “not co-habitable”), he is also survived by two grandchildren, his longtime companion, Joan Hawthorne, and Missy 2, the clone of his long-departed dog.