John Sperling passed on. I am mindful of Horace's de mortuis nil nisi bonum, but Sperling was a public figure of consequence, deserving an assessment. In keeping with the life he led, Sperling died in the Bay Area, not the city whose name he took for his empire of for-profit education.
The New York Times wrote, "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."
The University of Phoenix made him fabulously wealthy. His net worth in 2002 was $1.1 billion and he spent 20 years on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. With the troubles of parent company Apollo and its stock drop, he was below a billion in 2013.
He reveled in being quirky, combative and rebellious, especially against the education establishment and the government. And yet the GI Bill — authored by Arizona Sen. Ernest McFarland — allowed Sperling to get his bachelor's degree from Reed College in Portland, Ore. Federal student loans turned what would have once been considered a "business college" into a mighty profit engine.
Among the individuals who wrecked the commons, Sperling is right up there. Privatizing profits, socializing losses, the cost and quality of an education at the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools deeply questionable.