Memo to Steve Ballmer: Lakeside School is not the Clippers
by Knute Berger
Seattle's Lakeside School Credit: 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:
"I want you to know that we are proud of Lakeside’s athletics program and confident that our practices meet WIAA (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) standards. At Lakeside, we are committed to operating ethically and meeting or exceeding guidelines applicable to the school and its programs.
"To demonstrate our commitment to high standards and openness, we are conducting a thorough review of the story’s claims about our program and will report our findings to the Metro League. We have also initiated conversations with WIAA and invited them to review our practices. We will share all the findings of these reviews with the Lakeside community."
The WIAA will be out at the school soon to start their inquiry. School spokesperson Carey Gelernter insists that Lakeside is taking the Times story “super seriously” and will share the results of any internal or external reviews. She says “we’re still investigating every point, but there are significant inaccuracies and a lot of misrepresentation of facts,” though she won’t yet specify what the problems with the story are. “We’ll have a lot to share” when their review is done, she says.
The story also raises race issues, always uncomfortable for Lakeside.
The school has an admirably diverse student body – nearly half (49 percent) are students of color – and has made outstanding efforts to connect with minorities and local students who are not from privileged backgrounds or on a traditional Lakeside track. The Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program (LEEP), which runs programs such as a summer school to reach out to kids with potential in Seattle Public schools, began doing this nearly 50 years ago. Launched in 1965, it was headed for years by the late T.J. Vassar, a pioneering African American Lakesider and onetime member of the Seattle School Board.
Still, just as race is a societal issue, it is especially touchy at a bastion of privilege that is attempting to get it right. And Lakeside has been criticized in the past for creating a difficult, if not hostile, environment for minority students and faculty.
Ballmer's recruitment approach focused on basketball and how to build a competitive team. The Times reported that Ballmer is said to have made the cringe-worthy declaration, "I’m going to open up a foundation, and we’re going to get black people in here.”
That's a problem faced by many African American Lakeside students over the years – the suspicion among their peers and teachers that some of them have been admitted for reasons other than academic merit. To win games, for example.
The story is also a reminder of the difficulty, when managing an elite institution, of finding the balance between its mission and the goals of parents – often extremely rich and influential parents.
The Times paints a picture of Ballmer and his allies reshaping a school program to suit their goals. Was that really so harmful? Don't major donors often influence a school's direction?
Certainly the school has remade itself to suit contemporary and corporate notions of what a great education is. It is preparing students to be part of a global elite and Bill Gates' imprint is all over the place.
Still, Lakesiders generally love the fact that their school has a national reputation as a first-class prep school. I can’t imagine they want to see it succumb to the kinds of tactics that have tainted so many institutions of higher ed.
In the meantime, Steve Ballmer, who paid $2 billion for the Clippers, has now graduated to a more appropriate venue for his hoop dreams and aggressive play.
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