Some academics still think of John Sperling as a mercenary who defiled the intellectual sanctity of the university system with the introduction of a crass, money-making venture. How lovely for him.
This is a man who loves to scrap, especially when it involves a cause dear to his lefty heart. The founder of the University of Phoenix and chairman of its holding company, the Apollo Group, Sperling is an 83-year-old billionaire and an unapologetic rabble-rouser whose long-term passion has been delivering meaningful, affordable degree programs to working adults. "I've never been interested in making widgets or anything like that," he says hotly. "I want to improve the quality of life for my fellow men. I am, by nature, an improver--and a meddler."
Sperling was his own first student. Poor, dyslexic, and semiliterate upon graduating from high school, he joined the merchant marines, traveled the world, and taught himself to read. The material he absorbed--everything from Nietzsche to Henry Miller--formed the foundation of his philosophy. When war broke out, he joined the Navy. Upon returning to civilian life he earned a degree in history from Reed College. It was at Reed that he began thinking about the acute disparity between comfortable, upper-middle-class students--who fully expected to go on to become people of influence in academia, business, and government--and students like himself, young people with little or no support, financial or otherwise. With trademark blunt humor, he described it in his autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, as the "period of my life [that] might well be entitled, 'How I Learned to Hate the Middle Class."
After completing graduate work at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in economic history at Cambridge, Sperling taught in London, at Ohio State, and then at San Jose State. It was in San Jose that he launched his first program for working adults. His first students, a group of police officers, longed for access to advanced-degree programs that accommodated their schedules. Sperling designed a curriculum for them, but when he tried to bring the program into the university system, his plan met with opposition. His ideas were considered academic heresy: No one wanted to create or accredit a separate track for midcareer working adults.
To hell with them. He took his curriculum and in 1973 founded a company, the Institute for Professional Development, around it. In 1976 he folded that company into the new Apollo Group and moved everything to the desert hills of Arizona. The flagship University of Phoenix is now the predominant for-profit university in the country, with campuses in 29 states and 186,000 students (including those in online programs). The Apollo Group, largely a collection of educational enterprises, has a market cap of nearly $13.5 billion.
Sperling still delights in his role as agent provocateur, backing everything from drug-reform legislation to the genetic engineering of agricultural crops (and, as a matter of fact, house pets). "I'm indifferent to opprobrium and disfavor," he says cheerfully. "Risk just doesn't bother me at all; I don't know why."--Loch Adamson
Loch Adamson is a senior writer at Institutional Investor.