Dollar Scholar

updated 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

There's not a leaf of ivy or a single sports team at the country's largest private university. No dorms, no frats, no place to play Frisbee. And what does its leader think of a liberal arts education, with its great books and late-night philosophical debates? "It's a luxury," says John Sperling. "You can't afford that if you're a working adult." That is, someone like the more than 68,000 students struggling to get sheepskins from the University of Phoenix, the for-profit juggernaut created by Sperling, 79.

Boasting 52 "campuses"—simply rented office space—in 35 states, the UOP is open only to jobholders aged 23 and up. Most professors are part-timers; classes leading to degrees in fields such as business, education and nursing meet just one night a week. Nonvocational subjects are few. After all, says Sperling matter-of-factly, the employers who subsidize many students "won't support Greeks and Romans."

The ever-expanding school has certainly provided a lucrative means of support for Sperling, an Ozark sharecropper's son turned college professor turned highly unorthodox entrepreneur. The Apollo Group, the University of Phoenix's holdings company, notched almost $500 million in revenue last year. Chairman Sperling and his son Peter, 40, each own a stake worth some $300 million.

The cap-and-gown set's reaction to Sperling's no-frills approach has been decidedly mixed. In its early years some scholars attacked the University of Phoenix as a diploma mill; even today critics take it to task for ignoring scholarly research. Love it or hate it, says Ted Marchese, vice president of the American Association for Higher Education, "it's the most discussed university in the country in faculty lounges." Indeed some top academics have praised it for spurring other colleges to boost adult-education offerings and for innovations such as online classes.

The twice-divorced Sperling, who spends off-hours in a Tuscan-style Phoenix villa, clearly doesn't much care what others think—as his other passions attest. Recently he funded a successful campaign to let Arizona doctors prescribe marijuana (he used it himself during a successful fight against prostate cancer) and gave $2.3 million to Texas A&M to aid ongoing research efforts to clone a dog. His business sidelines include extracting edible oils from a sea plant and developing "cogniceuticals," vitamin supplements to improve mental function. "I've been a social reformer all my life," he says. "Now I can afford to do it on a larger scale."

Sperling, who was born in a log cabin in the hamlet of Freedom Schoolhouse, Mo., and was 8 when the Depression struck, says his family "couldn't get any poorer." Though he graduated from high school, he claims he could barely read until he began struggling through philosophy tomes during a hitch as a merchant seaman. After a stint in the Army Air Corps he earned a B.A. in history from Reed College in Portland, Ore., a master's from the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate from King's College at the University of Cambridge.

While teaching at San Jose State University in 1972, Sperling used federal dollars to educate local cops and schoolteachers about how to prevent juvenile delinquency. Soon some of his new pupils asked to enroll in degree programs. But San Jose's brass wasn't interested in accommodating adults, so Sperling teamed up with the University of San Francisco in a for-profit adult-education venture. In 1976 he struck out on his own.

And never looked back. The UOP won accreditation in 1981; by 1997 its enrollment topped that of New York University, the largest nonprofit private school in the U.S. Having endured what he calls a "bottomless pit" of criticism, is Sperling finally happy? "He would tell you himself that happiness is not what he necessarily seeks," says his son Peter, the Apollo Group's senior vice president. "He seeks a refuge from boredom."

Samantha Miller
Michael Haederle in Phoenix

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