At Winter Commencement, Abramson emphasizes perseverance

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 18, 2011

As Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, took the podium at Crisler Arena Sunday to deliver the keynote address at Winter Commencement, she warned students that her speech may not echo the optimism of Steve Jobs’s address to Stanford graduates in 2005.

Abramson instead advised students to persevere, and not become deterred by the difficulties they would likely face in securing careers amid a struggling economy. She shared her personal story of climbing the ranks at America’s foremost newspaper and the difficulties she faced — particularly as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field — as she encouraged students that their dream job is attainable with hard work and time.

“You may not find that dream job a month from now or even a year from now,” Abramson said. “But you will find it, and to do it excellently, you need to work at being well informed. You learn the skills you need for that right here at Michigan. You learn to question everything and to insist on finding out the truth.”

Aside from Abramson, who received a Doctorate of Humane Letters degree, the University also bestowed honorary degrees to three other individuals at the ceremony.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the ceremony. Leslie Benet, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, both received an honorary Doctorate of Science degree.

In her address, Abramson traced the arc of her own career to illustrate the importance of persistence, beginning with her work as a secretary in Time magazine’s Boston bureau after she graduated college. She said one of her first real assignments was to cover two little-known candidates in the 1976 New Hampshire presidential primary.

Abramson said she felt out of place as she covered the primary, watching the predominantly male reporters scrawl in small notebooks that they then placed in their chest pockets.

“I had neither the right notebook, nor such a pocket,” she said.

In the weeks after she returned from New Hampshire, she said she could feel her career as a successful journalist becoming increasingly tangible. She began studying The New York Times, which she had read “addictively” since junior high school, Abramson said.

“The elegance of the writing, the accuracy and bravery with which it was assembled, just dazzled me,” Abramson said.

Abramson succeeded Bill Keller as executive editor of The New York Times on Sept. 6, becoming the first woman to lead the newspaper in its 160-year history. She joined the Times in 1997, previously serving as the newspaper’s managing editor and Washington bureau chief.

Abramson also lauded the value of quality journalism, urging students to remain inquisitive about the nature and accuracy of the news they receive, and to seek out reliable sources.

“I’m asking all of you to recognize and insist on having real quality news,” she said. “… Quality journalism is a human deed. Never forget this.”

Coleman, University Provost Philip Hanlon and LSA graduate Joey McCoy, who was the student speaker, also delivered speeches at the ceremony, similarly discussing the economy as a concern, while lauding the value of a University degree in overcoming obstacles to attaining desirable careers.

In her speech, Coleman said the graduates will face considerable challenges, but she's confident they'll be able to overcome the "tenuous" economy.

“We couldn’t be happier for you," Coleman said. "You’ve reached this achievement because you believed in yourselves, believed in your professors and most significantly believed in a future that demands talented, creative people."

Hanlon said the skills students learned at the University “the special sauce” that will render them effective leaders of their generation.

“As you go forward, seek out and embrace the complex problems and opportunities that the world has to offer,” he said. “You’ve done that at Michigan, so we know you can succeed, and we look forward with great pride and interest in watching you make a difference in the world.”

Engineering graduate Rishab Aggarwal said he appreciated Abramson's honestly about the difficulties graduates would likely face as well as the reassurance that the University had provided them with skills necessary for being successful.

LSA graduate Lily Liao, meanwhile, said she will most remember Coleman emphasizing that students need to have confidence in their skills and abilities.

"Always believe in yourself," Liao said. "I mean, the future is hard, but you have to believe in yourself. Otherwise you're not going to get what you want."