Jill Abramson said in her 2014 commencement address that she has no idea what she is going to do next. "So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you," she admitted to the crowd. "And like you, I'm a little scared but also excited." Her speech was lighthearted, but poignantly wise, entailing many personal anecdotes and guidance for the unemployed.
Despite last week's shocking firing as the New York Times' executive editor, Abramson honored her commitment to address the 2014 grads at Wake Forest University Monday morning. The Times' publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s decision to appoint Dean Baquet in Abramson's place has been masked in controversy over the past week. In the wake of the ousting, a debate arose whether sexism was at play, whether Abramson was constantly undermining her peers and superiors, or as most recently suggested by Sulzberger himself, whether "she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back."
As Abramson took the stage, she was ironically well aware that both she and the cap and gown-donned grads were about to embark on a similar path: trying to find a job. A theme of resiliency carried the speech. Abramson did not directly touch on the scandal surrounding her job, but did speak highly of her former employer, saying there was "not a chance" she'd remove the New York Times tattoo she had on her back.
Here are a few key quotes:
On the fear of leaving a protective cocoon: "Sure, losing a job you love hurts. But the work I revere in journalism holds powerful institutions and people accountable [and] is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of."
On what's her next step: "I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I'm a little scared but also excited."
On what helped her the day after losing her job: Abramson got a call early morning on Thursday from her sister. Her sister reminded Abramson that, "It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back. Than to watch how we handled our successes. 'Show what you are made of,' he would say."
On personal advice for herself and grads: Speaking in the context of many grads having experienced successes, and some having experienced being dumped, or getting rejected, Abramson said: "When that happens, show what you are made of."
On her view of the New York Times in retrospect: "New York Times journalists risk their lives frequently to bring you the best news in the world. That's why it's such an important irreplaceable institution. And it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom."
On facing her own challenge: "I got run over and almost killed by a truck in Times Square. You may begin to call me calamity Jill, but stay with me here. And with the seventh anniversary of that event approaching, I wrote an article about the risk to pedestrians with three Times colleagues who had been struck and hurt. We mentioned a 9-year-old boy at the top of our story who had been hit and killed by a cab early in the year. A few days after the story was published, I got an email from Dana Lerner. It began: 'Thank you for the article you wrote in the last Sunday Times. The boy you mentioned is my son Cooper Stock.' I met with Dana last Thursday, and you know, Cooper was just killed last January. But Dana, her husband, and others are already working on a new law to make the streets safer. She is taking an unimaginable loss and already trying to do something constructive. We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize. Resilient and perseverant. And there are so many examples of this."
On her professional heroes: "Nan Robertson, a groundbreaking reporter of the New York Times, and Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post which broke the Watergate story. They both faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry. And they went on to win Pulitzer prizes." And, "My colleague Jim Risen, who is standing up against an unfair Washington leak investigation is another hero."
On wisdom she wants to impart: "[Robert Frost] described life after graduating as pieces to go on with. What he meant is that life is always unfinished business. Like the bits of knitting women used to carry around with them to be picked up at different intervals. And for those of you who have never knit, think of it as akin to your Tumblr, something you can pick up from time to time and change ... So today, you gorgeous brilliant people, get on with your knitting."
Watch Abramson's full commencement address below:
Prior to Abramson's speech many, including her daughter Cornelia Griggs and New York Times columnist David Carr, rushed to defend the former executive editor. In the Sunday edition, Carr wrote a glowing recommendation of both Abramson and her successor Baquet, emphazising how painful the fiasco unfolding in the media has been for employees at the Times. Writing about Abramson's exit, Carr said, "She had fought her way to the top, and now she would fight on her way out. She may have professed love for the Times, but once it decided not to love her back, she decided to inflict some damage on its publisher."
The caption reads, "Summer 2007 — my mother showed me she could walk again. Tomorrow she will show 'em what she's made of ... again. #highroad."