Even Ken Frazier realized he went too far.
The Penn State trustee’s outburst Thursday in Hershey did nothing but swell the tide of anger surrounding the university and its top leaders. His reference to the O.J. Simpson case when discussing the board’s action in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal was inappropriate.
On Friday, during the second of two days of board meetings, Frazier apologized for his comments, although not to the man who was the focus of his tirade.
“I employed an analogy that was unhelpful and confusing,” Frazier said of the Simpson comment. “Absolutely no offense was intended. I apologize.”
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More should be expected from someone in Frazier’s position, and this apology doesn’t go far enough.
The trustees have been under fire since November 2011, when the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal exploded and the board removed Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier from their jobs.
Trustee Paul Silvis recently told the Centre Daily Times editorial board: “We’re a whipping post.”
That can come with the territory when your responsibility is to make tough and sometimes controversial decisions.
Frazier let his frustration get the better of him Thursday when confronted at a board meeting by alumni candidate Bill Cluck, a Harrisburg lawyer who is calling for new faces to lead Penn State.
In doing so, Frazier pushed the dialogue further away from what really matters most: uplifting and assisting Sandusky’s victims while moving Penn State and the broader community in a positive direction.
He defended the board’s use of the Louis Freeh group to investigate the Sandusky matter, its acceptance of Freeh’s findings and the consent decree bringing harsh NCAA sanctions.
Frazier argued that the trustees did not need to wait until every legal scenario had played out to act, and suggested the ongoing cases involving former Penn State administrators would not change the board’s position on the Paterno decision, regardless of the eventual verdicts.
He should have stopped right there.
Instead, Frazier compared personnel decisions relative to the Sandusky situation’s ongoing legal proceedings to the O.J. Simpson murder case. The former football great was acquitted in criminal court of killing his wife and her friend, but still lost his civil trial.
Penn State officials Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley are awaiting their trials on perjury and failure-to-report charges, while the university continues to negotiate lawsuit settlements with as many as 30 alleged Sandusky victims.
Frazier’s point: Personnel decisions need not parallel due process in a court of law.
Frazier told Cluck: “If you cared about that, you are one of the few people in this country that looks like you who actually believes the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdict was correct.”
Frazier could have made his point without introducing a case that sparked anger and racial tension.
And Frazier’s “that looks like you” reference was an unnecessary and irresponsible jab. To introduce a racial element is as puzzling as it is inappropriate. Why go there?
As chairman and CEO of a major company, Merck pharmaceuticals, Frazier has certainly been in many verbal battles. He should have seen the line that should not be crossed.
His attempts to emphasize the board’s responsibility to act quickly served instead to pour gas on a burning debate over decisions the trustees have made. Any good Frazier might have done in finally addressing the board’s use of Freeh’s team and report was undone in a careless instant.
The frustration that spawned Frazier’s outburst is apparent on the faces of most members of the board. They have been under siege, and feel not enough focus has been placed on the good they have done.
Let’s be honest: The only steps that would make some people happy are a complete turnover of the board of trustees, a restoration of lost football victories, the rebuilding of the football wall and the replacement of the Paterno statue at Beaver Stadium.
Many of the trustees’ foes, especially the ones who turn to message boards and web commenting, are less than civil, even as they address meaningful subjects.
Despite facing such ugly vitriol, and as they appropriately address important issues, the trustees themselves must remain above the fray.
Frazier owes Cluck a personal and public apology, even if the trustee continues to disagree with the board candidate’s views.
Indeed, the attention paid to Frazier’s comments was as much a distraction from the meetings’ positive developments — including steps to change the board’s makeup — as was the posturing by Penn State football lettermen challenging decisions involving Paterno.
As leaders at Penn State, at their own businesses and in the community, the trustees are held to a higher standard — and are charged with maintaining a professional approach to this important but difficult dialogue.
That includes Frazier, who started out right but went so wrong.