John G. Sperling, a UC Berkeley alumnus and the founder of the University of Phoenix, died at a hospital in the Bay Area on Friday. He was 93.
Sperling was best known for his work in the industry of for-profit higher education and founded the Apollo Education Group, University of Phoenix’s parent company, in 1973. He founded the University of Phoenix in Arizona in 1978, which, under his leadership, became one of the first schools to develop internet-based education.
Sperling, who suffered from dyslexia and was poorly educated in his youth, learned to read during his time in the U.S. Merchant Marine. He received his bachelor’s degree from Reed College and went on to earn his doctorate in 18th-century English mercantile history from UC Berkeley in 1955.
“He definitely was an out-of-the box kind of thinker,” said Hugh Porter, the vice president for college relations at Reed College. “If you presented him with a problem, he would tell you a solution to it which you might not want to do, but you’d also have to admit it might work.”
Porter said Sperling, through the University of Phoenix, aspired to give an education to anyone who wanted one, regardless of background. He was concerned that the educational delivery methods of traditional schools couldn’t be sufficiently scaled to the high amount demanded.
Jorge Klor de Alva, a former president of the University of Phoenix, described Sperling as his close friend and worked with him for more than 40 years.
He said he most enjoyed the “thousands of hours” of debates he and Sperling would have, which ranged in topic from mathematics to religion to family life. The two kept debating until a week before Sperling’s death.
Terri Bishop, a vice chairwoman of the Apollo Education Group, said Sperling was a father figure and mentor to her and to many and inspired passion among his peers and coworkers. Despite his sharp tongue and love of argument, she said, he had a reputation as an “every man’s man.”
She said he was known for being an avid reader and would carry around stacks of future reading material — everything from economic magazines to scientific journals. On long international flights while she was trying to sleep, he would pester her with magazine articles to read, Bishop added.
“He was just relentless in his pursuit of information,” she said. “I’ve never seen anybody like that.”
In recent years, the University of Phoenix has been criticized for the amount of federal financial aid it receives and the disproportionately high number of students who have dropped out of the school as general scrutiny of for-profit higher education increased.
Klor de Alva, however, said these criticisms were unjustified, and when the university lowered its standards for admission, its failure rate rose as the university began to receive applicants with less education prior to enrollment.
Porter said that though the University of Phoenix had a problematic reputation toward the end of his life, Sperling’s intentions were noble.
“He really wanted people from many different walks of life to have access to higher education,” Porter said. “Despite all the legal troubles University of Phoenix had, I think (Sperling’s) heart was in the right place.”
According to de Alva, also a UC Berkeley alumnus, Sperling’s years on campus were some of the happiest in his life.
“Among the many things that (Sperling) spoke about that brought a real cheer to him and a real a gleam in his eye was his time spent at Berkeley,” he said. “That’s where he learned to appreciate the world of the mind.”
Sperling is survived by his long-time companion, ex-wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.