The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long, engrossing article (subscription only) about John Sperling, the entrepreneur behind that much-hated symbol of private enterprise, the University of Phoenix. Now 88, Sperling continues to be active in the company (he was brought back after a shake-up in 2006).
No doubt about it, Sperling is a quirky billionaire — he cloned his dog, in his youth tried to organize a union at San Jose State, and he favors solar energy and other left-wing causes (including one I approve of, legalization of marijuana). But the striking point of Thomas Bartlett’s article is that Sperling wasn’t a Wall Street financier, trust fund baby, or brilliant nerd who built Phoenix out of his garage. He was an academic.
Sperling attended Reed College and has a Ph.D. in economic history from Berkeley Cambridge. He taught at Ohio State and San Jose State.
Phoenix grew out of a “federally financed project to help juvenile delinquents,” explains Bartlett. Sperling started it after serving as a mentor for freshmen at San Jose State who needed remedial education. Sperling decided that one way to combat delinquency was to train police officers and teachers. But it turned out that these adults weren’t just after training; they wanted bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Starting with $26,000 and working initially under the aegis of San Francisco State, Sperling created the Institute for Community Research and Development and tried to work out educational partnerships with other colleges.
“He saw his mission as bringing higher education to underserved communities,” writes Bartlett. “But naysayers said his company was lowering the standards of its accredited partners.” Facing regulatory and accreditation problems in California, he moved to Arizona and started over, creating Phoenix.
So, the man whose fabulously successful university is anathema to academics was an academic himself, one whose favorite memories are of his life as a graduate student at Berkeley, where he and his friends hung out in cafes and argued about “theory, fact, and fiction.” But academia spurned Sperling once he decided that average people should have a chance at an education, too. He had to enter the marketplace in order to achieve that.