John G. Sperling: How a history professor became the pioneer of the for-profit revolution





John G. Sperling, as he often reminds those around him, is running out of time. At 88, he is in relatively good health, despite a weak kidney and back problems. He still walks the dog, drives himself to meetings, and seems to have no shortage of nervous energy: Forced to sit still for any length of time, he twirls his cellphone between two fingers or distractedly peels the label from a bottle of water, leaving it in shreds on the table.

Even so, he feels the tug of mortality, and he has a lot left to accomplish. Like, for instance, saving the world.

He's had big ideas before. In 1974, at the not-so-tender age of 53, he left a tenured position at San Jose State University with $26,000 in savings to start an academic program for working adults. In the beginning, he ran the operation out of his house. It soon outgrew those humble digs and later relocated to Arizona, adopting the name of that state's capital. Now the University of Phoenix has close to 400,000 students, more than 200 campuses and 26,000 faculty members, and is valued at roughly $10-billion.

Not everyone thinks that Phoenix's wild success is a good thing. The university has always had its critics, some of whom simply don't believe that an institution of higher learning should turn a profit. Its occasional scandals have reinforced the notion that Phoenix cares more about shareholders than students. The company has also paved the way for numerous imitators and helped promote the idea of students as customers, none of which has endeared Phoenix to its detractors....

So how did a middling history professor become the billionaire leader of the for-profit revolution? And, as he nears his 90th year, is he still up to the challenge?

John Sperling grew up poor and sickly in the middle of America — Missouri — during the Great Depression, the youngest son of a doting mother he loved and an abusive father he loathed. In his autobiography, Rebel With a Cause (2000), the account of his boyhood is filled with startling scenes of suffering and cruelty. Mr. Sperling is a fan of Charles Dickens, and it's no wonder.

His father beat him regularly, and, at age 10, after one humiliating episode too many, the boy threatened to kill the old man in his sleep if he ever hit him again. The threat did the trick, and the beatings stopped. When he was 15 his father died and John couldn't have been more pleased. His mother told him to at least try to look mournful, but he couldn't help himself: "I raced outside, rolled in the grass squealing with delight," he writes in his book. "There I lay looking up into a clear blue sky, and I realized this was the happiest day of my life. It still is."...


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