John Sperling '48 founded the University of Phoenix
John Sperling '48 founded the University of Phoenix

“Anyone Caught Lecturing will be Shot”

By Susan G. Hauser from 1995 | August 25, 2014

[Editor's Note: We were saddened to hear of the recent death of John Sperling ’48, one of Reed's most prominent alumni. Here's an article about John from 1995 that we stumbled across in our archives.]

John G. Sperling ’48 had it made.

He was a tenured professor with sterling academic credentials and a respectable, though sometimes rocky, career. In another decade or so, he’d be eligible for retirement. Then he could devote his time to writing and travel, opera, and theater.

Instead, Sperling bailed out of traditional academe and went into business, the education business. He had developed his own theories on how adults learn, and to put them to a test, he was willing not only to sacrifice a 20-year career, but to create a new model of education that many found downright shocking.

At age 52, John Sperling became a daring rebel, the bad boy of higher education. Now, 22 years later the former professor is a multimillionaire, the chairman of the board and chief stockholder of the Apollo Group Inc., parent company for the Institute for Pro fessional Development and the University of Phoenix.

This system of higher education for working adults, which is now spread over 24 states, was once branded a diploma mill by the bureaucrats and politicians who wanted to see Sperling’s enterprise die a quick death. And as recently as one year ago, in the Wall Street Journal, an official of an accrediting association described it as “McEducation.”

Sperling is a scrapper who has lived through his share of controversy. When he was an instructor at Ohio State University he founded a branch of the ACLU. At San Jose State, he organized a 3,000-member council of university teachers’ unions in California and then led the professors out on strike. Those experiences gave him strength when he was reviled for his new ideas.

Now when people throw around terms like “fast food education,” or “McEducation,” he cheerfully checks the steadily climbing worth of his shares. Since Apollo Group went public last year, they have quintupled in value. The success of his for-profit, adults-only university speaks for itself, and to any remaining critics, Sperling says: “It’s hard for them to say that any institution as successful as this is doing everything wrong.”

Sperling eventually had to leave the place where he was a tenured professor of economics, San Jose State University, because the administration couldn’t warm to the teaching methods he so fiercely espoused. He was able to drum up some business at a couple of small, financially strapped colleges in the Bay Area that were willing to try anything to boost enrollment. Sperling’s garage became his office and his teenage son, Peter, now the company’s vice president of administration, was hired as janitor/errand boy.

Some of Sperling’s novel methods are almost commonplace today as imitators try to replicate his success. But in the early 70s the idea that university teachers would actually work in the field they taught was unheard of. Not allowing teachers to lecture, but to be the “facilitator” of classroom give-and-take sessions, was another zinger.

Sperling confesses that the lectures he gave in his professorial days were not bad at all, but he still feels so strongly that teachers should not pontificate, that he good-naturedly growls, “Anyone caught lecturing will be shot!”

Not allowing teachers to formulate their own class plans, but to follow a curriculum established by a committee, was hard for traditionalists to swallow. But what really stuck in their craw was that Sperling was willing to give college credit for “life experience.”

Hence, the sobriquet “diploma mill,” which eventually served to drive Sperling out of California, where the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) was dead-set against giving legitimacy to Sperling’s enterprise. In 1976, Sperling moved his operation to Phoenix, Arizona, and in 1978 the University of Phoenix won accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, in Chicago.

Stephen Spangehl, associate director of the North Central Association, said, “We accredited it, and I haven’t received any calls recently that say this was a mistake.”

The association has accredited nearly 20 for-profit institutions, he said. But he has observed that a number of major state universities are now following University of Phoenix’s lead by adjusting to changes in society and acknowledging that adults learn differently from adolescents.

“But building that into the way that you structure a program isn’t necessarily turning education into fast food,” he remarked.

However, the man who described Sperling’s methods as “McEducation” in the Wall Street Journal says he has not changed his opinion. Milton Blood, managing director and director of accreditation for the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, said he objects most strenuously to the fact that University of Phoenix classes are taught, not by professors and scholars, but by working people who must follow a teaching outline.

“Those faculty are prepared with a kind of cookbook approach to do a course,” he said. “I think the model that the University of Phoenix uses is more like a very good corporate training model than a higher education model. It kind of prepackages education, and I think that loses some very important components of education.”

The University of Phoenix, incidentally, has not requested accreditation from his agency, which accredits business schools, including those of Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Sperling’s ideas for new methods of learning and teaching began to crystallize after he’d had the daunting experience of teaching economics to 12th-graders as part of an education study through San Jose State University. His education continued when he tackled an anti-delinquency project, which required him to design and teach courses to police officers and schoolteachers.

“One of the things I learned,” he says, “is that the method of pedagogy that has come down to us over 800 years is hideously inefficient.”

“What I did was look at education as a production function in which you say, what are the outcomes we want to achieve? And then try to calculate the most efficient and the least costly way to achieve those outcomes.”

Sperling took a little bit of this and a little bit of that to create the mix of academics and practicality that’s at the heart of the University of Phoenix. From Reed College he borrowed the small, interactive classes, where students hone skills of critical thinking. Likewise, from Berkeley, where he received his master’s degree, and from Cambridge University, where he got his PhD, he gleaned more elements of humanistic education, features that he says are common to almost all elite institutions.

“I didn’t leave any of those traditions behind,” he says. “I honored them and admired them. But what I’ve tried to do is democratize elitism.”

What Reed, Berkeley, and Cambridge didn’t encourage, however, was teamwork, or cooperative learning. And that is Sperling’s main point of departure from tradition. Upon enrollment in the business, education, technology, counseling, and nursing programs offered at the University of Phoenix, students are placed in learning groups of 15 to 20 people. These groups usually stay together, moving from course to course, for the duration of their degree program.

Each learning group is then broken down into study groups of three to five people. The study groups meet once a week, outside of class, to work on assignments that are team-oriented. Simply working together on class projects, which are then applied in the students’ own workplaces, gives the team members experience in leadership, cooperation, negotiation, problem solving, and other skills that are vital in the working world.

“We do know that many of the student projects are very, very successful,” notes Sperling. “We have lots of anecdotal evidence of students saving companies millions and millions of dollars.”

The notion of a for-profit university was fairly new—and highly suspect—when Sperling founded his company. The early years were marked by mulish opposition from traditional universities, accrediting bodies, and politicians. Even Sperling’s character was scrutinized in an FBI investigation of his dastardly plot against the status quo. That investigation, which Sperling says was fueled by WASC’s attempts to remove him from higher education, was soon dropped. However, in testimony to Sperling’s unwavering vision, the University of Phoenix has experienced, since the get-go, nothing but relentless growth in revenues and enrollment.

“Dr. Sperling is clearly a visionary with an incredible tenacity for success,” says Larry Gudis, University of Phoenix vice president and director of the Phoenix campus. “But it wasn’t like, ‘I have the vision, I know the path.’ He took it one day at a time and relished the small victories. In the beginning, those were very small victories.”

Over the years, the University of Phoenix has become more of a concept than an institution. It has spread far beyond the city limits of Phoenix, Arizona, where it was founded more than 20 years ago. It has even ventured into cyberspace, with a number of classes offered via the Internet. Currently, more than 22,000 students are enrolled in the University of Phoenix. This makes it the sixth largest private institution in the United States, larger even than Stanford or Notre Dame.

U. of P. “campuses” (which are actually leased space, usually in office buildings) exist in nine states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah—and Puerto Rico. Plans are in the works for campuses in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

In addition, degree programs for working adults are offered at private colleges in 15 states through the Institute for Professional Development, another Apollo Group subsidiary. Corporations can actually order up a number of University of Phoenix classes to be taught to their employees, on site. As for University of Phoenix on-line students, they can be found anywhere in the world.

Faculty members are recruited directly from industry, not from universities. They must have at least a master’s degree, have at least five years practical experience, and be currently employed in the field they teach. They are allowed only minimal influence on the curriculum design, which is done by a task force comprised mainly of business leaders in the subject taught. At the University of Phoenix facilitators are considered part-timers with no benefits. Yet there are 3,000 of them, and there is no shortage of applicants.

“The faculty think they’ve died and gone to heaven when they work here,” Sperling claims. “They think it’s a good deal, we think it’s a good deal, and the students love them.”

In Against All Odds, Sperling’s autobiography that has been distributed to the Apollo Group’s 1,350 employees, he writes that it was the challenges he met as a labor and strike leader that prepared him for his battle to gain respectability for the University of Phoenix. But surely he gained some of his toughness from even earlier experiences.

Sperling was born in the tiny town of Freedom Schoolhouse, Missouri, the youngest of six children. His parents were sharecroppers, so his early memories are of a nomadic farm life. After his father’s death, Sperling and his mother moved to Oregon to be with two sisters who were schoolteachers there. His mother took a job in a Portland burlap bag factory, and he helped make ends meet with after-school jobs.

He managed to graduate from Washington High School, but only by the skin of his teeth. After he joined the Merchant Marine and went to sea, it became clear to his shipmates that the teenage sailor was functionally illiterate. So as the ship plied the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, they taught him how to read.

“In those days very intelligent men were sailing because there were very few opportunities at the end of the Depression,” recalls Sperling. “I met some really wonderful shipmates and they got me interested in literature. Once I learned how to read, then I got interested in education.”

After leaving the Merchant Marine he enrolled at San Francisco City College, where he got all As in a handful of classes. On the strength of that, he was admitted to Reed College.

“Reed was really great,” he remembers. “We had Nazis and Communists and we had bitter battles over that. There were apologists for Stalinism, and it was a hotbed of ideological conflict. It was a lot of fun.”

Sperling got a history degree from Reed, then went on to get a master’s degree in political history at the University of California at Berkeley. On a fellowship from the University of California, he earned his Ph.D. in economic history from Cambridge University in England.

Divorced since Peter, his only child, was five, Sperling finds diversion in opera and theatre. He tries to schedule enough business trips to San Francisco and New York to satisfy that interest. In Phoenix his days are full, beginning with a predawn walk, followed by reading and writing before her leaves for the office.

Fairly confident that his “radical” notions are now mainstream, he generally devotes several hours a day to writing or speaking about the need to meet the educational needs of this nation’s labor force. Many times he has said that the U.S. should become a learning society to keep its competitive edge. Learning, he says, should be a lifelong process, rather than something one does before entering the labor force.

Once the radical, Sperling is now an honored citizen. In recognition of his achievement, Sperling was named an Arizona Entrepreneur of the Year, an honor bestowed by Ernst & Young, Merrill Lynch, and Inc. magazine.

The suggestion that the competition will take his ideas and run with them merely makes him chuckle. After all, Sperling is leagues ahead of his imitators. Sharing ideas with them, he says, is pretty safe.

As for traditional universities, included the elite institutions from which Sperling sprang, he has no argument with them. He maintains that the University of Phoenix poses no threat to their time-tested tradition.

“One of the things that we’ve followed in our career is never to denigrate the opposition,” says Sperling with the hint of a grin. “So I think traditional colleges and universities probably are doing their traditional job very well.

“We aren’t in that market.”

(Originally published in Reed magazine, November 1995)

Tags: Obituaries