09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
LET US GO THEN, YOU AND I, ACROSS THE sun-stained lawn of the quad, past the gorgeous pools of petunias, and into the soothing and carefully old-fashioned world of Whittle Communications. No wonder the place is nicknamed Historic Whittlesburg. Every note of the new $55 million corporate headquarters here in Knoxville, Tenn., has been perfectly struck, from the rolltop desks to the muted late-19th-century art on the walls. And in his fourth-floor aerie, chairman Christopher Whittle, 44, rhymes perfectly with his surroundings. He's a man of disarming charm, his signature bow tie and his grin both a little lopsided. The question is, is Whittle's warmth real or simply another design choice?
Since the mid-1980s, Whittle and company have been creating fresh and, to some, appalling new ways to flog consumer goods, plastering poster ads everywhere from bars to school hallways. But the real news here is the visionary experiment that began in July. "The biggest business start-up in American history," according to Whittle, is expected to cost about $3 billion. It is called the Edison Project, and it has some people upset.
Prompted, he says, by the parlous state of American public education ("A system which accepts a 30-percent dropout rate is a disaster!"), Whittle has taken the revolutionary step of assembling a think tank of educators, journalists and ex-Bush Administration consultants to design a national network of private secondary schools. Two hundred are scheduled to open in the fall of 1996; 1,000 more shortly after the turn of the century. Eventually, says Whittle, they will educate some 2 million children, who would each pay $5,500 a year, the average cost to taxpayers of educating a public school child. What's more, he and his corporate partners (Time Warner, Associated Newspapers Holdings and Philips Electronics) intend to make a yearly profit of 12 to 15 percent. Whittle's aim is to use parent volunteers and cutting-edge technology in the classrooms "to create a model that costs the same as the public schools and produces superior results. Then the public schools will adopt it."
The launch has a number of champions, such as the U.S. Department of Education, which has voiced approval, and Benno Schmidt Jr., 50, whom Whittle lured from the presidency of Yale to head up the project. But to others, Whittle's experiment is as threatening as the beakers and rheostats in Frankenstein's basement. These critics see Whittle as a greedy arriviste who, says Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National PTA, "just wants to make money off the backs of our kids."
Whittle has long been known for his strikingly novel business ventures. "I'm not a good competitor," he says. "I don't like going head-to-head, so I've always gone into unexplored terrain." His new-wave projects have ranged from the Medical News Network (daily interactive TV to update doctors, debuting next Near) to print advertising, where his gift has been for sticking ads in front of people's eyes in places no one ever thought of before. Whittle publishes books by grade-A cogitators like John Kenneth Galbraith and laces them with ads. The company has also created a slew of ad-filled magazines that are so specialized that there is even one for women in their third trimester of pregnancy. As Steven Florio, president of The New Yorker and a onetime Whittle employee, says, "Chris is a brilliant entrepreneur because he doesn't take advantage of opportunity, he creates it."
Garnering clients for his company, recently valued at $700 million, Whittle was tagged as the world's greatest salesman. Then in March 1990, with the help of an evangelical squad of field agents and legislative lobbyists, he started pitching a real boat-rocker of an idea: Channel One. Seen daily by about 7 million teenagers in public and private schools in 45 states, Channel One is a 10-minute broadcast that skips a stone across current events, intercut with two minutes of commercials for products such as Burger King and Clearasil. Schools get the show free, along with the loan of $35,000 in electronic equipment.
Many school officials are delighted. Says Elias Chamorro Jr., principal of 2,150-student Overfelt High in San Jose, Calif.: "Ordinarily we couldn't afford this technology. And it's an excellent news program." But Channel One has met a roar of resistance from groups like the National Education Association, which maintains that ads have no place in the classroom. To Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, Channel One is "a flat-out commercial deal. It's trading access to kids for money."
"I would argue," says Whittle, "that we should make school as close to the real world as we can. Channel One is a good economics lesson." Besides, he adds, "what we're doing isn't new. We're producing a daily electronic Weekly Reader."
Though Whittle's usual style is low-threat and down-home, many of his own colleagues don't know quite what to make of him. "Chris is mysterious," says one senior Whittle employee. "He's so damn shy. He walks around like he's surprised he owns the place." Certainly he's nonautocratic. "I don't even like to sit at the head of a table," Whittle says. Most of his 650 Knoxville employees can appreciate Whittle's almost Japanese emphasis on loyalty and fine benefits packages. But there is a question in the minds of some as to whether his just-folks approach is a pose—to succeed in business while being well liked. ("That's how you sell things in Tennessee," says another Whittle employee.) Last May, Whittle announced layoffs of 8 percent (due to a shift from print to electronics) in a speech to the employees. "Partway through, he became so choked up he had to stop for a moment," a staffer says. "Afterward, everyone was debating whether he was faking it."
At least some of his common touch comes naturally. Whittle was born and bred in the tiny hamlet of Etowah, Tenn., the only son of a country doctor and a housewife. Along with sisters Karen and Camille, he says, "I could go out the back door and in three minutes be in the woods." (As a refuge from the corporate hustle, Whittle lived for 17 years, until 1988, in a two-room cabin in dense woods along the Tennessee River, chopping through ice in the toilet on frosty mornings.)
He was always shrewdly and originally ambitious. In 1969, with friends at the University of Tennessee, the American studies major formed a seedling company called 13-30 (later Whittle Communications), which even then was into uncharted forms of target marketing. They created a magazine named Knoxville in a Nutshell, just for freshmen, and grew from there. In the late 1970s, Whittle and then partner Phillip Moffitt made a national name for themselves by saving Esquire magazine. Later the partnership became constricting for Whittle. He largely bought out Moffitt in 1986.
Today, though, the world's greatest salesman may face his toughest sell: persuading the public that, as founder of the Edison Project, he can be trusted as a pioneer educator. "Chris has a huge core of authenticity and sincerity," says his old friend writer Rick Stengel (a TIME contributor). "People who portray him just as a huckster miss that." Whittle denies he's a crass privateer but admits "that is in some ways the dominant perception of me. Have I done a good job of countering it? Not particularly." Asked though what his guiding principles are, he deflects the question: "I don't wear my feelings on my sleeve very well."
Certainly his interest in education has grown more personal of late. In 1990, the longtime bachelor wed Italian photographer Priscilla Rattazi, 35, a niece of Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli. With her son, Maxi, 6, and their daughter, Andrea, 18 months, Whittle is now a family man himself—at least on weekends, when he flies up to New York City to stay with them at their plush Victorian-style apartment.
Otherwise he oversees his various technoventures and dodges in and out of Edison Project meetings, where the team has begun mapping out plans backed by $60 million for research and development. CNN's Crossfire host Michael Kinsley has already called the effort "an inspired and inspiring idea." while others already hate it. Jonathan Kozol—author of Death at an Early Age and six other books on education—is one who condemns the idea of corporate financing for schools. "How irreverent a look will kids be invited to take at conglomerates like Time Warner?" he asks.
Some also believe Whittle will simply be siphoning the best and brightest out of the public schools, leaving them in worse shape than ever. He insists that admissions will be determined by lottery and scholarships awarded to 20 percent of those enrolling.
Little else about the shape of his schools has been decided. However, Schmidt says, "they will have radically greater parental involvement than anything I'm aware of now." Whittle envisions parents pledging two hours a week to do anything from teaching to cleaning up. "So I'm planning to go to my son's school this fall and offer a day a month," he says.
Even if he follows through, Whittle won't mollify those who argue that the Edison Project will leave many children—be they poor, disruptive or disabled—far behind. He brushes off such complaints as just a buzzing in his ears. "We can't continue on the course we're on," he says. "What's our option? Who's got a better plan? We have to try something new."