John G. Sperling, a pioneer of for-profit education who turned a $26,000 investment into the multibillion-dollar University of Phoenix, calling himself “an unintentional entrepreneur and an accidental C.E.O.,” died on Friday in the San Francisco area. He was 93.
His death was announced by the Apollo Education Group, the university’s parent company, which gave no other details.
Mr. Sperling, who lived in the Bay Area and in Phoenix, led the life of a stubborn iconoclast. A survivor of childhood illness, learning disability, poverty and physical abuse, he earned a doctorate from the University of Cambridge; a liberal former union organizer, he spent years battling government regulation; a longtime professor who did not enter business until his 50s, he became a spectacularly successful capitalist.
With the University of Phoenix, he defied convention by serving working adults, offering unusual class schedules, giving credit for skills earned outside classrooms — and turning a profit.
Over four decades he turned the university, and later its parent company, into one of the largest education ventures in the world. At its peak in 2010 it had more than half a million students in hundreds of physical locations and online. Its network of locations now extends to 39 states.
That success drew hostile reactions from traditional academia, accrediting agencies and government regulators, who questioned the quality and cost of for-profit colleges and accused them of milking government aid programs and preying on unsophisticated consumers.
To which Mr. Sperling said simply, “They’re scared to death of us.”
Squeezed by tighter regulation, bad publicity and declining demand, revenue and enrollment have declined sharply in recent years at for-profit education companies; Apollo’s stock has lost more than two-thirds of its value since early 2009. But Apollo remains one of the largest and healthiest companies in its field, with $3.7 billion in revenue and $249 million in profit in its 2013 fiscal year.
In later years Mr. Sperling’s business achievements were at times overshadowed by his unorthodox activities. He poured millions of dollars into an ill-fated attempt to clone his pet dog, research on human life span extension and, most successfully, efforts to legalize marijuana, in partnership with his fellow billionaires George Soros and Peter B. Lewis. Mr. Sperling said marijuana had helped him manage the effects of prostate cancer treatment in the 1970s.
He also adopted a number of environmental causes and co-wrote a bookoffering a template for Democrats to take control of the country’s politics.
By his own admission Mr. Sperling was endlessly combative, while others saw him as quirky at times. For one thing, he liked to wear the same outfit every day, khaki pants and a blue dress shirt.
John Glen Sperling was born on Jan. 9, 1921, in a log cabin in rural Missouri. He said his childhood was marked by near-fatal lung infections, dyslexia and frequent beatings by his father. He was 15 when his father died.
It was “the happiest day of my life,” he wrote. “It still is.”
Mr. Sperling later signed on as a merchant mariner and, with the help of a fellow crew member, learned to read fluently. He soon fell in love with classic novels. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps and afterward, with help from the G.I. Bill, attended and graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore.
He went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, studying history, and then to Cambridge before embarking on an academic career, first at Ohio State University. As a history professor at San Jose State in the 1960s, he was an organizer and leader of a faculty union and later a faculty strike.
In the early ’70s Mr. Sperling directed programs for remedial students and the teachers and others who worked with them. The adults, he found, wanted not just job training but also a college education. He left the university to found his first company, developing adult-education ventures with colleges.
A few years later he moved his headquarters to Arizona and started the University of Phoenix. In its early years the university clashed with accreditation agencies and state regulators, but business boomed, and Apollo’s first public offering, in 1994, made Mr. Sperling wealthy. In the following years, however, as for-profit companies seized a significant share of the college market, filling what they said was an unmet need, they came under increasing scrutiny for generally charging high prices and showing high student borrowing rates and low graduation and job-placement rates.
The University of Phoenix faced allegations that it had illegally paid recruiters according to the number of students they signed up, and it ultimately paid $80.5 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit.
Mr. Sperling’s defenders say the bad practices developed in a period when he had largely withdrawn from the company’s operations, before reasserting control in 2006.
Mr. Sperling and his son, Peter, the company’s chairman, controlled all of its voting stock.
Twice divorced, Mr. Sperling is survived by his son, two grandchildren and his longtime companion, Joan Hawthorne.
In his memoir, “Rebel With a Cause,” Mr. Sperling wrote that throughout his life he had shown “a lack of concern for what peers and authority figures think of me.” His strengths, he said, were “implacable opportunism, joy in conflict and a thrill from taking risks.”