John Sperling, 1921-2014

An iconoclastic educator at the heart of the movement to create for-profit universities has died

September 11, 2014

John Sperling had an archetypal American birth “in a backwoods log cabin”, he once wrote, in Nodaway County, Missouri on 9 January 1921. A sickly child, he left school in 1939 with little to show for it. It was only while working in a ship’s engine room in the Merchant Marine that he began to educate himself through intensive reading. After war service in the US Army Air Corps, he took advantage of the GI Bill’s funding for veterans to pursue university study. He took an undergraduate degree at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and a master’s at the University of California, Berkeley. He then took up an Ehrman fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, completing a PhD on 18th-century mercantile history in 1955.

After his first academic post at Ohio State University, Professor Sperling for many years pursued a standard scholarly career as a professor of history at San José State University in California (1960-72), where he also served as a union organiser. He described himself in Rebel with a Cause: The Entrepreneur Who Created the University of Phoenix and the For-profit Revolution in Higher Education (2000), as having been “a left-leaning academic” who was “not only ignorant of business, I was hostile to it”. Yet in 1972, already in his fifties, he reinvented himself as an entrepreneur, with an initial investment of $26,000 eventually becoming a business worth several billion dollars.

The first step was the Institute for Professional Development, which developed degree programmes for working adults such as police officers and firefighters. Far more significant was Professor Sperling’s creation of the Apollo Education Group in 1973, which became a publicly traded company in 1994. It runs for-profit higher education institutions, the largest of which is the University of Phoenix, which pioneered online learning and electronic textbooks and boasts over 100 campuses and 200,000 undergraduates worldwide, although both tallies are down significantly since 2010. Professor Sperling greatly enjoyed his battles with state bureaucracies, accreditation bodies and traditionalist academics, although in recent years the Apollo Group has been dogged by controversies over tuition fees, completion rates and recruitment practices, as the whole of the US for-profit sector came in for increased scrutiny.

In later life, his great wealth enabled Professor Sperling to devote his energy to causes such as seawater agriculture and anti-ageing medicine and a campaign to legalise marijuana. He died on 22 August and is survived by his long-time partner Joan Hawthorne, his son Peter – the current chairman of the Apollo Group – and two grandchildren.

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