"The three behaviors that have served me bestin my career as union organizer and entrepreneur are implacable opportunism, joy in conflict, and getting a thrill from taking risks-none of them a safe ride."-John Sperling
A little over twenty years ago, professor John Sperling designed a program that would allow working adults to earn a college degree in the same time it took full-time students on campus. This venture not only challenged many of the sacred tenets of academe, it also provoked a hostile opposition that bordered on rage.
Realizing that a new, independent structure was necessary for his revolutionary ideas to survive, Sperling abandoned his academic career to found what would become the nation's largest and fastest-growing private university-making him, at age fifty-three, a very late-blooming entrepreneur and, at age seventy-three, an IPO megamillionaire.
Rebel With A Cause is the dramatic tale of how a man born into poverty went on to establish the for-profit Institute for Professional Development, the University of Phoenix, and Apollo Group, America's largest higher education company. Here, Sperling tells his remarkable story for the first time. He was ostracized by his peers for debasing higher education and faced an unrelenting effort by the defenders of traditional education to destroy him by regulation. He recounts his successful battles to defend his vision of adult higher education from enemies in the academy, in the accrediting associations, in state and federal bureaucracies, and in the press.
This book offers a revealing look at a man whose radical behavior-challenging authority, ignoring the advice of experts-could have been his undoing, but instead enabled him to tap into the skyrocketing market of adult education and turn it into an innovative, for-profit industry. It explores how he grew the University and its subsidiaries into what is now known as Apollo Group, which boasts over 125,000 students, an annual growth rate of 25 percent, and 1999 revenues of $500 million.
Rebel With A Cause also provides an enlightening glimpse of the intersection of business and education policy, examining Sperling's contrarian view of running higher education like a business-and, in the process, keeping America competitive. His cost-effective model, developed during the birth of the University of Phoenix, shows how the nation must adapt its education policy in order to produce skilled employees capable of competing in today's information economy.
The unforgettable story of the man who redefined American higher education, Rebel With A Cause offers wisdom and inspiration, teaching lessons all business professionals and educators would do well to heed.
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About the Author
JOHN SPERLING is Chairman and CEO of Apollo Group, Inc., the parent company of the University of Phoenix. He and his companies are widely covered in the financial and educational press, and have been the subject of feature articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Business Week, and the New Yorker.
Read an Excerpt
I have been successful in business--very successful. My essential metier, however, has been, and is, stimulating and enabling personal transformation and social reform. The reason for these interests will become evident as you read about my personal/company history. The typical American success story no longer begins with birth in a backwoods log cabin, but mine does. And that is only the first on a long list of anomalies in my life.
The money I've made notwithstanding, I am an unintentional entrepreneur and an accidental CEO. The company I founded in 1972 with $26,000 in hard-earned savings now has a market value close to $3 billion. This stroke of good fortune occurred after a largely misspent youth, dutiful but undistinguished military service, a graduate ate education that went on far too long simply because I had nothing better to do, and a lackluster academic career (except for the effectiveness of my teaching), that led me to delay finding my calling until the age of 39. Even then, the calling I found was not business--it was union organizing.
I did not become an entrepreneur until the age of 52. I created my first company with no thought for building a business, per se, but merely as a way to preserve an educational innovation from being destroyed by a small-minded bureaucracy. I had designed a program specifically for working adults that would allow them to earn a degree in the same amount of time it took full-time students on campus. Because this challenged many of the sacred tenets of academe, it was met with hostility bordering on rage.
The depth of opposition I encountered made it clear to me that creating a new, independent structure was necessary for the survival of my ideas, but even the decision to establish my new venture as for- profit--the ultimate apostasy in academe--still had nothing to do with business. In fact, as a left-leaning academic in a word culture, I was not only ignorant of business, I was hostile to it. I had recently been voted out of the presidency and control of a faculty union that I had built from almost nothing to one that was both important and prosperous. That experience cured me of my socialist sentiments in favor of nonprofits. I correctly perceived that the only sure way to maintain and enjoy the fruits of my labor was to create a venture I could control--it would be a for-profit corporation with majority control firmly in my hands.
This decision led me to found what would become the nanation's largest and fastest-growing private university. It also gave me a fortune beyond my wildest imaginings. The company I began in 1972 became, in 1985, the Apollo Group, which went public in 1994 and now has operations in 35 states and, by distance education, all over the world. We have a total enrollment of over 120,000 students and an annual growth rate of 25 percent.
There is probably something to be learned from all this, but what I'm offering here is not a conventional how-to-succeed-in-business business biography. I have always found the lessons in such books rather tedious, and I have never taken one of them to heart. I have learned far more about how to conduct my business affairs from such novels as: Tom Jones, Emma, Notes From the Underground, The Red and The Black, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and The Great Gatsby than I ever have from reading a business book. So, if there are lessons to be learned from my life, I have left them simply embedded in the story. I trust the reader to have the good sense to find them and to choose from among them.
However, there is another, perhaps more important, reason for avoiding a didactic presentation of what life has taught me. A reader would be well advised to strenuously avoid most of the behaviors that made me successful. For example, if one chooses to "challenge authority," as I have done, but is not tough enough or shrewd enough to carry it off, he or she will be ill served by the advice. The same can be said for any number of my other characteristics--opportunism, indifference to the advice of experts, and lack of concern for what peers and authority figures think of me. Behaving this way in most companies would soon lead to a reputation as an unsavory character and, most likely, an invitation to work elsewhere.
The three behaviors that have served me best in my career as union organizer and entrepreneur are implacable opportunism, joy in conflict, and getting a thrill from taking risks--none of them a safe ride. Janis Joplin immortalized Kris Kristofferson's observation that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," and that's the freedom that comes to those who, like me, embark on life with nowhere to go but up. Having nothing, and therefore nothing to lose, makes implacable opportunism a rational behavior, and, eventually, such behavior becomes habitual. It is also vastly easier to take risks when the upside is so much greater than the downside. And, if one is an opportunist who engages in risky behavior, conflict is inevitable, so you might as well enjoy it.
Even though I now have much to lose, I'm still an opportunist, still get into a lot of conflicts, and still find risky ventures exciting because they heighten my survival instincts, focus all my senses, and force me to perform at maximum effectiveness. It was this bet-the- farm behavior that helped to build the Apollo Group, but now that Apollo is a large organization with very effective controls, I have to exercise my penchant for risk elsewhere. Fortunately, because of Apollo's success, I can afford to.
I now invest my risk capital in ventures that truly interest me, but also ones that stand some chance of promoting positive social change. One of these is Seaphire International, an effort to expand the world's food supply by developing saltwater agriculture suitable for third- world countries. Another is the Kronos Group, Inc., a commercial venture into longevity research, linked with the delivery of age man agement therapy in a clinical setting. These are hardly areas free of controversy, but to truly indulge my passion for conflict, I've also adopted drug law reform as my political passion. Working with financier George Soros and insurance executive Peter Lewis, we have formed a troika dedicated to demilitarizing America's "War on Drugs," which, in a time of sharply declining crime rates, has filled our prisons to overflowing.
The final chapters of this book describe these current passions of my "golden years." The other chapters describe how I built the wealth that now allows me to invest in controversial socioeconomic and political ventures. Most of the people who read this book will never be in a position to create a company like Apollo, or have the resources to engage in the kind of activism I've undertaken. However, they might enjoy reading about how someone with a propensity to bet the farm managed to do so.
Obviously, my own success did not just happen suddenly at the age of 52. It did not begin with the formation of my original company, or with the academic research that was its intellectual foundation. It began at my birth and slowly took shape as my intelligence, personality, values, ideology, aesthetics, persona, and world view were shaped by the people, places, and experiences of a lifetime.
There is a Chinese proverb that states, "Pain teaches." The American variation offers, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
If these adages have any truth to them, then I was lucky, indeed, to be born into the Missouri Ozark hamlet of Freedom School House, in a cabin made of rough-cut logs, in the year of 1921. Or, as Roberto Benigni put it at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, my parents gave me the greatest gift of all--poverty.
Table of ContentsLessons.
The Education of John Sperling: Part I--1939 to 1954--A Sea Change.
The Education of John Sperling: Part II--1954 to 1960--Voyage to Europe.
San Jose State and the Transmogrification of John Sperling: Reentering Academe.
The Unintentional Entrepreneur: Summing Up.
Exodus from California and Flight to the Valley of the Sun: Seeking a Strategy for Survival.
The War in Arizona: Setting the Scene.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch: Part I--1979 to 1981--The FBI Arrives--RICO.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch: Part II--1981 to 1986.
Toward an IPO and Beyond: Preparation for and Launch of the IPO--1986 to 2000.
Giving Back: Part I.
Giving Back: Part II--The War against the War on Drugs.
Give Back: Part III--The Second Battle for Proposition 200.