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Mission Forsaken: The University of Phoenix Affair with Wall Street

Mission Forsaken

Mission Forsaken: The University of Phoenix Affair with Wall Street

Success & Controversy of University of Phoenix is chronicled by one of its founders

Media Contact: DP&A, Inc. / David Perry (415) 693-0583 /

1 July 2013 – San Francisco, CA: As John D. Murphy writes in his seminal new book Mission Forsaken: The University of Phoenix Affair with Wall Street: “The high-profile success of the University of Phoenix is both admired and reviled, but the real story lies in the Herculean struggle to create, refine, and institutionalize cutting edge and enduring educational innovations to serve working adult learners, and the diligence of the hard political will necessary to protect and defend those efforts.”

Part history lesson, part trenchant analysis, Mission Forsaken: The University of Phoenix Affair with Wall Street, is very much the tale of two unlikely and visionary friends from different sides of the tracks: the book’s author, John D. Murphy and University of Phoenix principal founder John Sperling. Mission Forsaken is the only insider account about the University of Phoenix since Sperling’s 1997 book on the subject.

“The history of the University of Phoenix is an odyssey of educational entrepreneurship in a sector of society with a congenital resistance to innovation and change,” writes Murphy, 66. “It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the financial values of the corporate world are applied to the provision of postsecondary education with an outmoded regulatory system.”

Dedicated to the “hundreds of thousands of University of Phoenix working adult graduates who have been subjected to the scandal-ridden decline in the well-earned reputation and standing of their alma mater,” Mission Forsaken reads like a novel as it lays out a visionary educational utopia now threatened with the dystopian possibility of loss of accreditation.

According to Murphy, the University of Phoenix has abandoned its core principles: “Stock valuations appear to have eclipsed the founding mission. It resulted in the hiring of executives—if measured by graduation and student loan default rates, regulatory fines, and legal judgments—with unrealized commitment to the optimum operation of an academic degree granting institution solely for working adults.”

As he outlines in the book, the University of Phoenix went astray when it eliminated admissions standards with the stated goal of fulfilling its founding mission: solely serving working adult learners. With the elimination of entry standards, a new generation of University of Phoenix attendees now depend almost exclusively upon taxpayer-funded student loans and grants from other governmental sources. When the University of Phoenix went public, 80 percent of its working adult students had some or all of their tuition unwritten by their employers.

As Murphy writes in the book: “From its founding in 1976 and continuing until 1998, the University of Phoenix never received a federal or state regulatory reprimand, censure, or fine, or was the target or victim of lawsuits or legal judgments. Between 1999 and 2013, the University of Phoenix and Apollo Group paid for or are liable for $242 million in regulatory fines and whistleblower judgments.”

Murphy was a founder of the University of Phoenix and served as Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Academic Vice President. He was a voting shareholder member of the board and executive committee member of its publicly-traded holding company, Apollo Group, Inc. Murphy also founded and directed a community mental health program while an adjunct professor at San Jose State University. In 2007, he wrote and produced the award-winning film Valley of the Hearts Delight, a dramatic retelling of the notorious San Jose Brooke Hart kidnapping and subsequent lynching of two men accused of that crime.

“The graduation rate when the University of Phoenix went public stood near 65 percent, about the same as traditional nonprofit private colleges and universities,” says Murphy. “After adopting a taxpayer-supported community college open admissions policy, the graduation rate fell to approximately 33 percent. This never would have happened when the employers of its working adult students underwrote some or all of the cost of tuition.”

Selected excerpts from the book Mission Foresaken:

The University of Phoenix went public through its holding company, Apollo Group, and spawned publicly traded, multibillion-dollar, controversial and lucrative for-profit sector of the education-industrial complex. This sector now dominates growth in postsecondary enrollment, percentage of federally guaranteed student loans for its number of students, and student-loan default rates.

Successful innovation is rooted in the commitment of its innovators to fight for it, regardless of the form of opposition or obstacles in its path. The University of Phoenix prevailed against stunningly impossible odds because its founders never turned away from any challenge and once maintained absolute fidelity to its founding principles.

I picked up the Arizona Republic on the way to breakfast. The thick Sunday paper sat on the counter while we ate; none of us had even glanced at it. Why would a conservative newspaper contain anything about a budding nontraditional university with eight working adult students that had been granted accreditation candidacy from the same entity that accredited all educational institutions in Arizona? I don’t remember who caught the headline on a front page, but we were all floored: “Quick-degrees college in line for accreditation.” In a lull of the endlessly intense work days and nights in the crazed weeks and months that followed, I ask John how it felt to be in the crosshairs of an educational assassination. Silence grew as we tried to imagine what that meant. It took no time to find out.

Nearly half of undergraduate degree-seeking students today are over twenty-five and work full or part-time. The traditional structure of higher education, due to punishing annual cost increase and impediments to working adult productivity must be changed to reflect the world in the twenty-first century rather than still operating like it was the late nineteenth century.

Traditional higher education remains structured and operated primarily for those who attend full time at a single campus. This compels working adults to earn degrees in a manner that can consume a decade during the most productive years of their lives. The negative impact on careers and on the economy is staggering.

It is well beyond the time for comprehensive structural changes in the way in which higher education is conceived and delivered. The University of Phoenix was established closer to the twenty-first century than the twentieth century and both its design and operation acknowledge and reflect the time in which it was founded. The majority of America’s traditional higher education institutions remain configured and managed as if we were at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1900, communication was measured in weeks, months, and even years, today in nanoseconds.

Traditional higher education manifests a congenital resistance to change. In the early twentieth century, private colleges and universities—once the majority of institutions—protested fiercely against the creation of tax-supported land-grant colleges and universities. Another pitched battle followed World War II when both private and public higher education institutions fought the GI Bill because they earnestly believed it debased student quality.

At core of everything University of Phoenix is the refusal of many traditional academics to acknowledge that full-time working adults require an educational delivery system and teaching/learning model designed and operated in recognition of the specific learning needs and place in life. Recognition of differences in educational delivery systems and teaching/learning models for the traditional-aged student and the one for fill-time working adult learners with real-world experience is the key to the transformation of undergraduate higher education in the twenty-first century.

The original University of Phoenix teaching/learning model permitted working adults to earn degrees while they continued to meet their full-time personal and professional responsibilities. The failure of traditional institutions to acknowledge the importance of the personal and professional responsibilities of the adult learner constitutes a barrier to access.

Given the wars, skirmishes, firefights, ambushes, dustups, attacks, dry-gulching, and bushwhacking the University of Phoenix endured at the hands of traditional higher education, five major factors ensured both survival and prosperity: high quality educational content; efficacy of the teaching/learning model; candor, accuracy and responsibility in all relationships; political hard will to fight for survival on our merits; and absolute accountability for student academic achievement.