John G. Sperling, founder of the Apollo Group and a leader in for-profit education for 40 years, is retiring as executive chairman, the company announced Thursday.
Sperling's retirement is effective Dec. 31. His son, Peter Sterling, has been chosen as chairman of Apollo Group's board of directors.
Apollo Group is the parent company of the University of Phoenix, and the change comes as the for-profit college is going through a major restructuring. In October, Apollo Group announced it would lay off about 800 employees over the next year while it closes 115 locations across the country, mostly learning and student-resource centers.
Enrollment at University of Phoenix has fallen 14 percent over the past year, to 328,400. It is the country's largest for-profit education chain.
"It's nearly impossible to overstate how fully my father has devoted himself to Apollo Group and its mission," Peter Sperling said in a statement.
John Sperling, 91, once told The Arizona Republic that the University of Phoenix was his "proudest legacy" because it made degrees attainable for many working adults. He has remained active in Apollo Group's day-to-day operations, said Mark Brenner, the company chief of staff.
"There is no single person in Phoenix of in Arizona who has done more to promote access of high-quality education," said Brenner, noting that Sperling was a leader in night and online classes as well as e-books.
Company officials did not release any specific reason why Sperling is retiring, but Brenner said Sperling has long had a continuity plan in place.
According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Sperling received a base salary of $850,000 and potential total compensation of $6.8 million in 2011.
While the University of Phoenix popularized online classes and provided an alternative pathway for working adults to obtain degrees, it has also come under scrutiny for low graduation rates and high student debt levels.
Sperling, who was born in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks, founded the Apollo Group in 1972 and grew it into a Fortune 500 company. It has more than 10,000 employees in Arizona.
Sperling was named chairman emeritus by the board, in recognition of his service and contributions to the company.