John Sperling - Multi-millionaire founder of the University of Phoenix, Chairman and CEO Apollo Group ... and chief funder of 'CC' - the first cloned cat.

Apollo Group CEO John Sperling Looks to Broaden Boundaries of Higher Education

Excerpts from an Interview on CNN's Pinnacle, Aired July 16, 2000:

BEVERLY SCHUCH, HOST (voice-over): John Sperling is about living, reborn several times after close brushes with death. In fact, he's a lot like the mythical bird the phoenix, having risen from the ashes of his own adversity. He was born the son of an impoverished sharecropper who beat him regularly. As a youth, he worked the farms in the Ozark Mountains shucking barley. He didn't learn to read until he was 16. He faced bankruptcy twice and cancer once.

But John Sperling is a fighter and has overcome these hardships to soar to the highest level of entrepreneurial success.

JOHN SPERLING: Fortunately, there were no orders governing institutions of higher education so all I did was start a corporation and name it the University of Phoenix.

SCHUCH: (Voice-over) All John Sperling did was create what has become the lawmaking unit's largest for profit university and certainly the most unusual. Its 74,000 students must hold full-time jobs. Its 52 campuses in 35 states are actually housed in office buildings and there are no dorms, no student unions and certainly no football teams. But the unusual university that John Sperling created in 1978 has become the talk of higher education, not all of it flattering.

While his peers criticize Sperling's concept, they can't argue with his credentials, including Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

(on camera): You were originally criticized as being a diploma mill.

JOHN SPERLING: A diploma mill.

SCHUCH: A diploma mill.


SCHUCH: Just giving them out without accreditation, without any foundation.

JOHN SPERLING: Yes. Yes. That's true.

SCHUCH: And what did that make you think?

JOHN SPERLING: Well, the thing that helped a lot is that because I was a legitimate academic, it was difficult. They couldn't say that I wasn't an academic. They just said that I was a rogue academic.

SCHUCH (voice-over): But Sperling defied the educational establishment that tried to run him out of town.

JOHN SPERLING: I had students but no college so I set up the University of Phoenix.

SCHUCH (on camera): Who wouldn't have thought that there wasn't a University of Phoenix? I mean you came in and invented it.


SCHUCH: People could not have been happy about that.

JOHN SPERLING: Well, they weren't happy. They were incensed that this California carpetbagger had come down here and stolen the name of their fair city.

SCHUCH (voice-over): It took a while, but Sperling is gaining the grudging respect of his peers and the not so grudging respect of Wall Street, after the University of Phoenix reported revenues of a half a billion dollars last year. The parent company, Apollo Group, is doing even better.

JOHN SPERLING: We took the company public and the IPO, the stock increased by 20 times and I was holding, my son and I were holding a third of the company or nearly 40 percent of the company. We don't own that much anymore, but we own about 30 percent. But 30 percent of $2 billion is a lot of money.

SCHUCH: Sperling has used his newfound wealth to pursue a grab bag of causes, from prolonging human life to legalizing marijuana to feeding the world.

UNIDENTIFIED COLLEAGUE: Dr. Sperling, you're making one hell of a contribution.

SCHUCH (on camera): You have a lot of money now.


SCHUCH: You have a son...

JOHN SPERLING: ... who also has a lot of money.

SCHUCH: Who also has a lot of money. What are you going to do with all this money?

JOHN SPERLING: I'm starting, as you know, drug order reform is very expensive. It costs millions of dollars a year.

SCHUCH: So this is your indulgence?

JOHN SPERLING: Yeah, that's one of them. And then two other indulgences, Seafire International, which is a saltwater agricultural company that is one day going to save the world, I might add...

SCHUCH: Modestly.

JOHN SPERLING: ... by stopping the global warming problem. And then I have Chronos, which I'm trying to use as an instrument to reform medical practice in the United States.

SCHUCH (voice-over): John Sperling has overcome poverty, conquered a learning disability and risen to the status of multi-millionaire. Yet why does Sperling call his own father's death a miracle?

JOHN SPERLING: It's still the happiest day of my life.

SCHUCH (on camera): And you have no remorse about this?

JOHN SPERLING: None whatsoever. . . .

SCHUCH (on camera): How would you characterize your childhood?

JOHN SPERLING: It was a disheveled childhood.

SCHUCH: Disheveled?

JOHN SPERLING: Yes, psychologically disheveled.

SCHUCH (voice-over): In his autobiography, "Rebel With A Cause," to be released this fall, John Sperling describes an upbringing marked by sickness and poverty. His mother, he writes, was the most influential person in his life. His father, the most despised.

(on camera): Was he ever a good father to you?


SCHUCH: When did you first hate him?

JOHN SPERLING: Probably the first time he became a conscious part of my life. There was something about him that I just didn't like from a very early age.

SCHUCH: At some point it was dislike that turned to, you know, loathing.

JOHN SPERLING: Well, in looking back on it I perceived him as weak, cowardly and cruel. There was nothing about him I liked. So a person that has no redeeming qualities is easy to begin to dislike and then if they're abusive, the dislike turns into hatred. So it seems pretty normal to me.

SCHUCH: And he hit you?

JOHN SPERLING: Oh, yeah, lots of times.

SCHUCH: But you turned the tables on your father.

JOHN SPERLING: Well, I threatened to kill him.

SCHUCH: How old were you?

JOHN SPERLING: Nine or 10, I think I was 10.

SCHUCH: What did you say?

JOHN SPERLING: I said I'll kill you in your sleep if you ever hit me again.

SCHUCH: And that was it?

JOHN SPERLING: See, he was cowardly enough he believed me.

SCHUCH: You'd have had more respect for him if he'd have hit you again?

JOHN SPERLING: No, I'd have killed him.

SCHUCH: That's a lot of anger for a little boy.


SCHUCH: You say in your book that, you refer to his death when you were 15 as the miracle.


SCHUCH: The miracle.

JOHN SPERLING: It's still the happiest day of my life.

SCHUCH: And you have no remorse about this?

JOHN SPERLING: None whatsoever. . . .

SCHUCH: From fighting university administrations as a teacher's union activist to battling anti-drug orders to creating a DNA bank for the cloning of animals, the radical pursuits of a rebel with a cause, the next chapter in the story of John Sperling when PINNACLE returns. . . .

JOHN SPERLING: It was about two weeks after I became wealthy that I started my drug order reform.

SCHUCH (on camera): But you never were interested in the accouterments of wealth such as that, were you?

JOHN SPERLING: Well, no, never having had it.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Sperling's interest in drug reform was at least partly inspired by his use of marijuana during treatment for prostate cancer. As with the other passions in his life, Sperling has attacked the marijuana issue with a vengeance, teaming up with Cleveland businessman Peter Lewis and hedge fund billionaire George Soros.

JOHN SPERLING: It's unbelievable how much we've achieved in just three election cycles from having the whole issue absolutely off the table. No one would discuss it. It was the ultimate third rail of politics. It was you touch that and you're dead. A federal commission says that there are real medicinal properties of marijuana that should be accepted. Starting in 1996, we won the first two in California and Arizona. Then in '98 we won in Colorado and Nevada. And...

SCHUCH (on camera): You won what?

JOHN SPERLING: Initiatives to either medicalize marijuana or to reduce the civil penalties or the criminal penalties. . . .

SCHUCH (voice-over): And that's not all. At age 79 and still going strong, John Sperling has a great many other causes to fight for, including finding the fountain of youth....

SCHUCH (on camera): What's the worst thing one can feel?

JOHN SPERLING: Boredom. And that in its most extreme form would be depression.

SCHUCH: Do you understand happiness?

JOHN SPERLING: No. I never thought of being happy. I've never sought happiness. It's not something that concerns me.

SCHUCH (voice-over): What does concern John Sperling these days, he says quite humbly, is saving the world. He's teamed up with scientist Cora Hodges to form Seafire International, a company designed to harvest a crop called salacornea grown in salt water. Sperling sees this project as a lifeline for poor economies.

JOHN SPERLING: The sea water farms are going to be an essential element in, you might call, the economic recovery of both Eritrea and Ethiopia.

SCHUCH: And if you want to save the world, then you'd better plan to be around for a while. . . .

SCHUCH: That's why John Sperling also created Chronos, named for the Greek god of time, a wellness center that combines vitamin therapy with extensive body and blood analysis to help forestall the aging process. And beyond improving the condition of mankind, Sperling's latest challenge, the cloning of animals.

JOHN SPERLING: That's another company I've started, Genetic Savings and Clone.

SCHUCH (on camera): You're kidding, right?

JOHN SPERLING: No. We already have a cryo bank for DNA for all sorts of animals. We intend to start a cloning service to clone pets and farm animals.

SCHUCH: And why?

JOHN SPERLING: Because it's possible. There are all sorts of reasons to do it. In addition to one of a kind animals, there are, you can help to recover species that are endangered with extinction. You can do transgenic work with farm animals and create all sorts of medicines for human beings.

SCHUCH: And you would want to make money out of this?

JOHN SPERLING: Oh, we will make money. We'll make a lot of money at it....

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