Apology of the Week: Penn State Trustee and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier Apologizes


The fallout from the Penn State University Jerry Sandusky child molestation matter continues to be toxic.Penn State

At a recent Penn State Board of Trustees meeting, Kenneth Frazier, a Penn State alumni, member of the board, and CEO and chairman of Merck Pharmaceutical had an angry exchange with Bill Cluck, a lawyer testifying before the board.  In an angry exchange, captured on audio and posted on YouTube, Frazier inexplicably played the race card in criticizing Cluck by invoking the O.J. Simpson trial:

“You are the only person who looks like you who believes the OJ Simpson verdict was correct.”  

This was a racist, unwarranted attempt to delegitimize a member with a different point of view. That Frazier is himself African-American has no bearing on the matter.  I think Frazier quickly accepted that he crossed a line.

First Apology

Kenneth Frazier apologized for insulting William Cluck

Kenneth Frazier apologized for insulting William Cluck

Frazier’s first apology was as insipid as his attack:

“I employed an analogy that was unhelpful. Absolutely no offense was intended. I apologize,”  

Readers of this blog know what a sad apology this is. It did not address the racial reference, the central offense. It wasn’t even an analogy. And no one cares about the offender’s intention.

On March 16, 2013 the CentreDaily newspaper published an editorial titled Penn State Trustee Frazier Did More Harm Than Good with Outburst.

Second Apology

With the benefit of counsel from Merck, whose brand Frazier threatened, a second apology was issued in the form of a letter to the editor on March 17, 2013. Here are the salient aspects of that apology:

You are right (“Our View | Penn State trustee Frazier did more harm than good with outburst”).  I accept your central point that, at the board meeting on Thursday, I let my frustration get the better of me and as a result used language that was racially insensitive and inappropriate. For that, I apologize to Mr. (Bill) Cluck, to the Penn State community, and to my colleagues at Merck. In addition, I have called Mr. Cluck to relay personally my sincere apology.

One of my core values is to treat people equally based on their abilities and character. This is likewise a fundamental value at both Penn State and Merck. The words I used did not reflect that principle. I hope that people will see my comments for what they were: a momentary lapse in judgment in the heat of frustration, and not a reflection on what I truly believe and stand for. My commitment to racial equality, diversity and social justice is well-established, and deepens my regret that my poorly chosen words have distracted from the important issues at Penn State.

Another core value I share with my institutions is to acknowledge mistakes and to learn from them. This has been a learning experience for me. As a trustee and business leader, I will strive to remain professional and meet the high standards rightly expected of anyone in my position.


I give Frazier credit for recognizing the real offense (“racial insensitivity”) and apologizing for it in a forthright manner. It is fair that he

Harrisburg attorney William Cluck

Harrisburg attorney William Cluck

apologized to the larger community in this letter as well as issuing a personal apology directly to the victim. I appreciate that he intends to learn from his mistake and has committed to meet the high standards that are expected of leaders in his position.

The apology is less satisfactory in two ways. First, Frazier talks entirely too much about his commitment to racial diversity, etc.  An apology is not the platform for the offender to claim virtues put in question by the offense for which he is apologizing.

Second, the matter of restitution is missing. Restitution is always the trickiest parts of apologies that don’t involve property loss or monetary damages. What, after all, is the proper restitution for an offense like Frazier’s and who, exactly, is the victim that can accept the restitution?  I don’t have a sure fire suggestion, but then that’s Frazier’s responsibility, not mine.  Some critics are calling for Frazier to resign as a token of restitution. I don’t believe resignation is appropriate. Our leaders get to make mistakes and learn from them without being hung out to dry. But I think some restitution is in order. Perhaps a donation to an organization working to help the victims of child molestation.

I am indebted to Larry Schultz for calling this matter to my attention.

Frazier’s Grade

Recognition: A

Responsibility: B

Remorse: A

Restitution: C

Repetition: A

Overall Grade: B+

5 Responses to “Apology of the Week: Penn State Trustee and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier Apologizes”

  1. Larry Schultz says:

    I work as a volunteer in a Domestic Violence Batterer’s Intervention Program. It is an educational course about the beliefs regarding women which drive men to be violent and controlling with their partners. Our idea is that action is the expression of belief. “Do not tell me what your belief is–show me your actions and I will conclude what you believe.”

    As you might guess, effective apology is a fairly significant part of what we do, and as you might further surmise, our guys are singularly unskilled and untutored in its performance.

    There are two areas of proper apology we teach that Frazier missed. First, that the offender must clearly explain to the victim his motive(s) for the offense, and second, that he must validate the feelings of the victim. In Frazier’s case, he notes, “I let my frustration get the better of me and as a result used language that was racially insensitive and inappropriate.” With our guys, we immediately deconstruct that sort of remark.

    With Frazier it would sound like this: “So, Ken, when you get frustrated you begin to think in terms of unwarranted racist outbursts, and occasionally it gets the better of you?”

    In our class, he would be asked to consider saying something like this: “The pressure of this situation and the fact that I felt I was losing the argument with Mr. Cluck caused me to want to make him stop. The choice I made of injecting race into the matter was an extremely poor one, but I cannot deny that is the choice I made. A better effort on my part would have led me back to the reasons why I believed I should not lose the argument.”

    With regard to validating the feelings of the victim, we would expect that he indicate that anyone would be justified in being offended at his remarks, but especially Cluck. In this way you make sure the victim is not being implicated for over-sensitivity even indirectly, in the way that a conditional, “if” apology implicates them. As a longtime champion of diversity in the workplace, Frazier could have even noted that he now understands how easy it is to make such poor choices. “I have many times taken others to task for this same failing in other settings. I could never understand how they could do such a thing. I understand now.”

    Just some thoughts. We deconstructed Lance Armstrong’s apology at length in the class, including your analysis (from the WSJ?) Thanks again for your attention to this neglected part of American ethics.

  2. Bill Cluck says:

    John- Trustee Frazier agreed to respond to 15 questions about the Task Force he chaired that retained Louis Freeh. It is important to find the truth. That’s what our exchange was about. Although I accepted Frazier’s apology, and we had a civil conversation, I am disappointed certain media edited out the “people who look like you” portion of his tirade from their coverage, namely the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also, the silence from members of the Board of Trustees and the University administration in not condemning the racial/possibly anti-semetic tirade is upsetting. Last december, Penn State administrators issued a strong public statement when they suspended a sorority for inappropriate costumes at a Halloween party http://news.psu.edu/story/143992/2012/12/06/open-letter-penn-state-community. Why is this incident different?
    The “restitution” should be sponsorship of a forum on race relations and discriminatory language.

  3. Nellie R says:

    Sorry, but this is not the first time Frazier has behaved in this manner towards anyone who has a valid question for the PSU Board during and after meetings. This is just the first time he has been “caught on tape”.

    Rather it has become an regular and established established pattern of behavior over the past 16 months. Therefore I would adjust the grades to F on all counts and the conclusion that he should not resign is invalidated.

  4. Henry Chance says:

    I doubt there’s any real sincerity behind Ken Frazier’s apology. I think proper restitution in this case would be to embrace an open discussion of the Freeh Report and to address the narrative and the history he seems so animated about revisiting with even the most basic of questions.

  5. Ray says:

    Dear John,
    Mr. Frazier is unwilling to admit that the reason for Sandusky’s 16 year span of child abuse is the abysmal state of PA’s Child Protection system. The PA Governor sits on the PSU Board of Trustees and approves the state’s appropriations for PSU. Prior to the scandal, Corbett proposed a $160M budget cut for PSU. After the scandal, Corbett has committed to level budgets for the remainder of his term. Quid pro quo?

    If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

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