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

John Kador Posted by John Kador, Business Author and Ghostwriter , Kador Communications .

John is the author of over 20 books, including The Manager’s Book of Questions: 1,001 Great Interview Questions for Hiring the Right Person, and Charles Schwab: How One Company Beat Wall Street and Reinvented the Brokerage Industry.

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

Kenneth Frazier apologized for insulting William Cluck

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

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

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+