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Memo to Steve Ballmer: Lakeside School is not the Clippers

The former Microsoft CEO's nascent hoop dreams have raised embarrassing questions for the Seattle prep school about integrity and race.
Steve Ballmer

Steve Ballmer Photo: Wired Photostream

Seattle's Lakeside School

Seattle's Lakeside School Lakeside School

As seems to happen with the former Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, he's made news that resounded loudly in the worlds of business and basketball.

Just as he was being feted as the NBA savior of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Seattle Times published a disturbing story about his influence on the basketball program at Lakeside School, not only the Gates-Allen alma mater, but the school for Ballmer's own kids.

On the heels of that, it was announced that Ballmer has resigned from the Microsoft board, effectively immediately. His only connection now — beyond his legacy of decades of high-energy work — is his sizable holding of company stock.

Anyone who has followed Ballmer's Microsoft tenure would know that he's emotional, aggressive and hyper competitive, a kind of cross between Pete Carroll and King Kong. He's also a famous boundary pusher, and many have blamed Microsoft's anti-trust problems, among others, on his insistence of pushing limits. He also has a reputation for attacking and hamstringing the competition. In other words, he plays offense and defense with intensity.

That should serve him well in his new career as an NBA owner.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that he brought that same zeal to being a Lakeside basketball parent. Still, his efforts to use his money and his love of the game to reshape the school's basketball program, according to the Times, may have violated state prep sports rules.

The Times story suggests that Lakeside has compromised some of its vaunted academic standards by allowing some student players to circumvent the usual entry process.

In short, it sounds as if Ballmer and his friends brought a little of big-time college sports boosterism to the Lakeside campus. An academic cheating scandal would be bad enough, but cheating for sports?

The story has embarrassed some friends and followers of the school (disclosure: I’m an alum). One former board member told me she was shocked and that she was going forth henceforward with a "bag over my head."

People have long discussed Ballmer's excessive enthusiasm at Lakeside basketball games — he's the kind of loud, overly involved dad that makes other parents look askance. But the multi-billionaire was apparently also wielding a checkbook to get the program and players he wanted.

The real impact of the story is in how it undercuts the narrative of a school where the real sport is supposed to be academic achievement. Lakeside has carefully crafted the idea that it is a place where students get in and stay in based on brainpower and academic merit. It was the cradle of Gates and Allen, after all, and the institution still remembers that one of its first students, Wilber Huston, was dubbed by Thomas Edison as "America's Brightest Boy" in 1929. He went on to become a rocket scientist.

The Times story raises questions about whether that legacy is being compromised.

Lakeside has always promoted athletics among its students as the kind of thing that shapes character, and it has expanded its facilities and programs extensively over the years. In the pre-Ballmer era, student macho was often exhibited in the school's squash courts, where many a local blue-blood has been bloodied.

The school these days feels like a college campus in many respects, but tainting its core brand to win basketball games? Is that really Lakeside? According to the Times, one former school coach said “They relaxed their academic integrity to accommodate athletes.” Certainly, that's not the school of old, which used to be content competing in golf or rowing, or at lesser athletic levels with teams from Forks and Tolt.

Bernie Noe, the school's longtime head, has sent an email to Lakeside parents about the school's commitment to academic standards, promising to conduct "a thorough review" of the "claims" made in the Times series. Writes Noe:


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 8:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Crosscut, its fine editor and Berger are all to be congratulated for the one-two punch of this article and the one that follows about Microsoft's avoidance of taxes and the resulting lack of money for education (always the biggest expense in state funding). As Skip points out, until very recently Microsoft was aggressively run by Ballmer, the same guy who was giving so much for hooping it up at Lakeside. Too bad he also didn't have it in his play book to let his company be as generous with public school funding as he was privately.

thoughts

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Ballmer sound like a classic creepy sociopath. I'm real tired of these men running our society. Barreling your way through obstacles with large wads of cash gets one short term gain, and long term unhappiness, or more, for most everyone else. Shame on Lakeside for allowing this to occur.

FigTree

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Nicely stated...I can't really add anything to it except to say that as a Lakeside alum I am for the first time in memory ashamed of my old school.

TaylorB1

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

A nicely balanced piece, Mossy. And you a Lakesider to boot?? I never would have guessed ;)

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Obviously Lakeside has a problem. And why the basketball coach still has a job is baffling. The guy was supposedly getting cash under the table - “I was trying to figure out a way to make a living doing what I loved.”

Is there a conflict of interest for the basketball coach with A PLUS and Lakeside? Seems like it.

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

It is time for us all to re-examine the "balance" of sports and academics. I recently read Amanda Ripley's book "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way". She profiles students from the US who have gone to Finland, Korea and Poland. All three countries are doing quite well on international tests. One point she makes is American schools are very focused on sports. A teacher is hired because he/she can also coach. The way sports drives schools simply doesn't happen in the rest of the world, and her point is that's one reason why our kids are lagging on the PISA tests, especially in math and science.

One way of sports driving schools is the start time of the school day.

I've asked several high school admissions directors "has your school considered changing school start times due to the research showing how teens' circadian rhythms mean they function a lot better when they sleep in?" Most schools, including Lakeside per an administrator last spring, choose their start time based on how it fits with sports schedules and other extracurricular activities. The only school I've found so far that is considering this research and has changed is Seattle Lutheran. Also, Annie Wright starts its day with PE, so the girls are more awake during their academic subjects.

If there's one thing that really stood out from the Seattle Times story it is this: a lot of people had to have known what was going on. This was about a lot more than admissions: it was about many people "covering" for Mr Isabell and others (?) through scheduling their classes at a lighter level, excusing skipped class so he/they could do extra shooting practice, and providing support other students apparently didn't get.

I hope Mr Noe's investigation can fully document just what type of support was provided that regular students don't get, then see who was involved and what they did to justify those actions.

Maybe Lakeside's ethics team could also do some research and provide some assessments.

Another thing that stands out: it is possible for one person or a small group to effect major change. Where was the rest of the board when certain individuals were changing the school culture?

To close, I feel most sorry for whichever students were denied admission because their spots were given to unqualified students. Lakeside has some amazing academic resources and it is really unfortunate those resources were not allocated to the best and brightest who could make the best use of them.

sjenner

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 8:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks to Skip Berger for this piece and for the earlier Times investigative reporting which brought the matter to light. Not only colleges but secondary schools have had to cope over the years with overzealous boosters and alums who thought themselves entitled to operate outside the rules. It is up to the schools to just say no.

Others have commented on the state, county and local tax subsidies
extended to Microsoft, Boeing, and other major economic players while, at the same time, public education monies are lacking. Such subsidies, by the way, now amount to three times the size of the state's biennial budget. A lot could be done with that money.

We are not alone here in giving powerful people and institutions what they want---or turning our heads when they act willfully and/or outside ethnical boundaries. You find the syndrome everywhere. Lakeside's credibility and reputation have been compromised. But they can be redeemed if the school's leaders promptly establish what happened and set it right.

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted, you're saying that corporate subsidies are 3 times the biennial budget? In hard dollars, what does that translate into??

I found this article from Knute in the Seattle Weekly in 2006
http://www.seattleweekly.com/2003-06-04/news/boeing-7-7/

"Between subsidies and defense contracts, Boeing lives off the public dole anyway. We could either be done with their blackmail which will only get worse or take the controls of this flying porker ourselves."

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Whatever "investigation" happens at Lakeside will be about as thorough as the police department conducts after shooting an unarmed person.

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Ballmer demonstrates that bulldozers can be destructive as well as constructive. What a rube.

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

You take this behavior, add a few billion dollars of money and fly to DC and you have our U.S. Congress. Bought and purchased by people like Steve Ballmer and Jeff Bezos.

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 5:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately I think Richard is correct with respect to his comment about how "thorough" Lakeside's investigation will be. Bernie isn't going to release results that make it look like he was asleep at the wheel or turned his head in the other direction.

@knute - Do you think alums will have an influence over what takes place (as in the ones who don't donate Ballmer type of money)?

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 5:14 p.m. Inappropriate

LittleVoice: My sense is that the school cares very much what alums think and that it's important to let them know.

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Time will tell Knute. We all know that rich people and accountability don't go hand in hand. As LittleVoice mentioned in an earlier post,

"And why the basketball coach still has a job is baffling. The guy was supposedly getting cash under the table"

Maybe the school could start there. Anybody want to bet on the coach getting fired? Don't hold your breath. Sports programs are sacred and people associated with sports are like Teflon. Nothing sticks to them. Look at Penn State University. Jerry Sandusky had sex with young boys..... Right in the locker rooms at the University. For years. And no one reported it.

Talk is cheap. Action is all that matters. Let's see how the judgement of Lakeside is tainted by money.

Posted Tue, Aug 26, 10:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think Lakeside does care what alumni think, unless it's alumni of the Ackerly, Nordstrom, Gates, Balmer, Allen and Runstad variety. On Lakeside's last fundraising call to me a few months ago, I asked that Bernie Noe call me and discuss a public insult rendered by a current employee to a generation of women who attended Lakeside. That request was made both to the initial student calling that night, as well as to a Lakeside employee a day or two later in an email. To date, no call has been received.

Personally, I find no evidence they care much of alumni who don't give millions.

Catherine

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 11:45 p.m. Inappropriate

As a Lakeside graduate who competed 4 years for the school in multiple sports, never winning an event and rarely winning a game, and as the parent of a Pac-12 athlete (who saw very little success in the years of sports prior to this level), I’m saddened by this news. If verified, and even if not specifically against any WIAA rules, Mr. Ballmer and his accomplices robbed a generation of future leaders of important life lessons. Sports have been shown crucial to developing minds, winning is not: a subtlety perhaps lost on those involved. Character building, developing resiliency, and understanding the spirit of rules are all important. Perhaps most importantly, how about not taking advantage of a community athletes who deserve far better than to be dumped by the wayside after the winning season is over. Making the best of what they had, would have been a useful lesson for the team, not learning that they could buy the result they (their parents) wanted.

Ultimately these parents allowed their children to be robbed of some important life lessons before they hit the realities of college and life. I think they’re all a bit poorer for the experience, and the Lakeside reputation tarnished.

Catherine

Posted Tue, Aug 26, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

The one aspect of both the Times and Knute's piece that didn't receive the attention due is that of the new, overly opulent and ostentatious athletic facility on the Lakeside campus. Where other local schools have gyms, Lakeside is the beneficiary of the Paul Allen Athletic Center, which includes the Ackerley Gymnasium. Being the parent of a high school athlete whose team regularly competes against Lakeside, I always thought their cozy brick gym was a nice answer to the charges of elitism that stalked this pricey private school. Given that the gym was probably the most frequent point of contact to Lakeside by the outside community, its scale and age, in keeping with other local schools, sent a signal that athletics knew their place on this academic campus. But then, I was there for the inauguration of the Paul Allen Athletic Center, where Ballmer and Allen and Ackerley were among the rows of Seattle's elite to watch their team compete (Ballmer's boy scored 75% of the team's points in that game). I heard the gushing from Lakeside families about how the new athletic facilities would help them recruit against other schools (with pedestrian gyms). I felt like I needed a shower afterwards, and I wasn't even competing on the floor.

mavis

Posted Thu, Aug 28, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

It seems to the Seattle native that this was a better place to live when it was less populated by these hyper-rich money guys throwing their weight around. JG-

Posted Fri, Aug 29, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Jerry. I think you're right. I will never forget the old barber shop that was downtown where the Olivia apartment is now. They had rows of plastic figurines all around the window. Quirky but more people friendly than those huge hulking high rises down there now.

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