WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The setting of Hearn Plaza Monday morning, at Wake Forest University, was straight out of commencement ceremony central casting. Perfect blue sky. Smiling parents in pastel dresses and seersucker suits. Graduates clad in black caps and gowns walking in to "Pomp and Circumstance."
Except for one thing: The horde of national media members sitting in the front row. (I among them.)
All the national media attention — the sort typically reserved on this campus for an ACC basketball championship or a presidential debate — was, of course, in response to the day's commencement speaker, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Her address constituted her first public comments since she was fired from the top position last Wednesday.
In the days since, her ouster has been the subject of massive scrutiny, mostly focusing on what role gender stereotypes or unequal pay may have played in her departure. That attention only intensified over the weekend after Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. issued a statement refuting that speculation and publicly outlining what he saw as Abramson's deficiencies as a manager. He blamed "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues."
To say she had an awkward job to do Monday morning ushering graduates into the working world is to put it mildly.
Yet Abramson delivered a funny, self-deprecating and gracious speech that had something for everyone. To the students she offered camaraderie, reminding them that "I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you." She revealed she was "a little scared but also kind of excited," and joked that she'd booked a private session with the university's chief career counselor. "What's next for me?" she said. "I don't know." Yet she also added: "You know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want? When that happens, show what you are made of."
For the parents, she shared a story of how her sister had called the day after she was fired and reminded her of lessons from their father. "I know Dad would be as proud of you today as the day you became executive editor of the New York Times," she recounted her sister as saying. "It meant more to our father to see us deal with setbacks...than to watch how we handled our successes."
And to the "small media circus that followed me," as Abramson referred to the gathered reporters, she offered just enough colorful anecdotes. She shared that Anita Hill, the subject of a book Abramson co-authored, called to offer her words of support last week. She admitted that "losing the job you love hurts." And she confirmed that despite her firing, she would not be getting rid of that Times "T" tattoo on her back. "Not a chance," she said.
In doing so, Abramson pulled off the tricky feat of being a news-making commencement speaker who managed not to focus the spotlight too much on herself, rescind the invitation or ignore the elephant in the room. Talking too much about her ouster would have distracted attention from the students, yet ignoring it entirely would seem out of touch for someone who recently occupied the pinnacle of the media world. Her balancing act provided the rare opportunity to deliver a graduation speech that resonated with students, many of whom also find themselves jobless and unsure of what they'll do next.
The title of Abramson's speech in the commencement program was "The Importance of a Truly Free Press," and Abramson did in fact reference press censorship in China. She spoke of her journalistic heroes (one of whom is former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham) and the extent to which she "reveres" the role journalism plays in democracy.
But it was resiliency — and all the very real humiliation, misfortune and grit it involves — that served as the real theme of her speech on Monday. For students graduating into a difficult job market and uncertain futures, that's perhaps the best message of all. A high-profile graduation speaker with an illustrious resume and a string of successes may be inspiring to hear. But a high-profile speaker with a successful career who shows how to stare down adversity is far more relevant.