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John G. Sperling founded the Institute of Professional
Development—in the burgeoning field of for-profit higher
education—in 1973, while teaching at San Jose State. He later
began what became the University of Phoenix, which was
accredited in 1978 by the North Central Association of Colleges
and Schools. In five years ending last December, the University
of Phoenix added 42 learning centers to 23 already in place.
With more than 40,000 students, it is the largest accredited
private university in the nation. This interview was conducted
National CrossTalk
correspondent Carl Irving.
Carl Irving: Your new approaches to higher education
have clearly appealed to older, working, more focused
students. Does that mean you have exposed some
fundamental flaws in traditional nonprofit colleges and
John Sperling
: We started this in 1972-73. I had to
create a model to address needs in ways that simply were not
traditional. This offended traditionalists, some of whomwere
bitterly opposed to what I had created. They did everything
they could to say [my approach] was illegitimate.
To oppose a measure we had introduced to deal with
this issue, they argued that if restrictions weren’t maintained,
diploma mills would come into California. By implication we
were a diploma mill. Stories were planted in the newspapers to
that regard.
That gives you some idea of the vehemence and fear these
people saw in this newmodel. I had been an academic for 20
years and therefore could understand how they felt. It isn’t that
I sympathized with them, but I certainly could understand
their feelings. It just boiled down to: Are you going to serve
this population, is it a legitimate population to serve, and if it
is, do you have to have a model that allows you to serve it?
CI: How do you define this population?
: Working adults who haven’t finished their bachelor’s
degrees, or who want a master’s degree. They’re working full
time and, as one of our students said, they’ve got kids, they’ve
got dogs, they’ve got lives, and you’ve got to fit the education
into these complex lives.
People commute to Silicon Valley all the way from
Santa Cruz. They have a three-hour commute every day.
They have to worry about all sorts of things. They are adults
leading complicated—or if not complicated, certainly time-
CI: Why didn’t traditional institutions become aware
of this?
: They might have become aware of this, but you’ve got
to understand that institutions of higher education have been
operated for the benefit of the faculty. The faculty, I suppose
those at any college or university worthy of the name, thought
Fall 1998
John Sperling
of themselves as creators of
new knowledge, and to do
that you had to do research
and writing, teaching being
For instance, when
I was at Berkeley as a
graduate student, the
professor came in and he
gave three lectures a week
and maybe a seminar. That
was it, and all the teaching
was by myself and this
army of my fellow teaching
I knew something
about the subject matter,
but I didn’t know a thing
about teaching. But I’m not
so sure the professor knew any more about teaching than I
did, because that was not the way he defined his professional
So why should they bother about this other population?
For instance, they would have to teach at night. Well, they
want to go home to study and write and don’t want to be
bothered with students.
CI: Did you find this to be true later, when you were a
professor at San Jose State?
: San Jose State College moved from a normal school
to a state university, and everyone wanted to write, to be
published, to be recognized in his or her profession.
CI: But aren’t researchers the best
: Knowledge now is so universally
available that you would have to
be creating some very esoteric new
knowledge to be in a position where the
students would be the ones to be the
primary beneficiaries.
CI: Could you say that your faculty
are out there every day learning on the
job and thus are more proficient in
what they teach?
: Well I did have one professor
at Berkeley who influenced me greatly. He was a history
professor who defined history as the usable part of the past,
and I define each of the subject matters that we deal with
at the University of Phoenix in terms of what is the usable
part of that particular body of knowledge. Our students are
“Clearly, as is widely
recognized by those
familiar with it, we
have the nation’s most
sophisticated quality
management system in
higher education.”
Jeff Topping for CrossTalk