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New York Times top editor to give graduation speech

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
and Stephanie Steinberg, Editor in Chief
Published October 10, 2011

The executive editor of The New York Times is responsible for choosing the most important stories delivered across the world each day. Come December, that editor will be tasked with choosing the right words to tell graduating University students.

Fred Conrad / The New York Times

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson


Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University
Nancy Cantor will receive a Doctor of Laws degree. She was provost of the University of Michigan from 1997 to 2002. Cantor also served as dean of the Rackham Graduate School from 1996 to 1997 and as a senior research scientist at the University’s Institute for Social Research. An advocate for diversity in education, Cantor aided the two Supreme Court affirmative action cases in 2003 involving the University. She joined Syracuse University in 2004.
Leslie Benet, Professor at the University of California, San Francisco
Leslie Benet, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences and pharmaceutical chemistry, will be awarded a Doctor of Science degree. He has earned three degrees from the University: a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and creative writing, a Bachelor of Science in pharmacy and a master’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry. Benet’s work involves studying the rate drugs are cleansed from the human body and has helped improve therapies for various types of cancer and diseases.
Robert Putnam, Professor at Harvard University
Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, will be awarded a Doctor of Science degree. He taught at the University of Michigan before teaching at Harvard University. He developed the two-level game theory, which proposes that international agreements can only be brokered if they include domestic benefits for the parties involved. His famous book, “Bowling Alone,” explains a gradual collapse of community in America since the 1960s.

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Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, is expected to deliver the keynote address and receive an honorary degree at the 2011 Winter Commencement at Crisler Arena, University President Mary Sue Coleman told The Michigan Daily in an exclusive interview on Friday.

Though she hasn’t yet composed what she is going to say to the class of 2011, Abramson — who will receive a Doctorate of Humane Letters on Dec. 18 — said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily that her speech will likely focus on the importance of quality journalism and how it impacts society.

“I’m not going to make my whole speech about journalism, but I am going to talk about some of the recent trends about the digital transition in the world of journalism as well as in broader society and hopefully will have some words of inspiration as well,” Abramson said.

Abramson is on the board of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at the University — an organization that grants fellowships to professional journalists who study at the University for one year.

“I think it’s a wonderful program, and I have gotten a little bit of exposure to the wider University through that,” Abramson said. “It’s a huge honor for me to be the graduation speaker and to get an honorary degree.”

Abramson will be the first woman to speak at a University commencement ceremony since then-CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour spoke at Spring Commencement in 2006. Coleman said the University made a “special push” to choose a woman to speak this year.

“I sent my note out to the faculty and the community to nominate people to think about women as they were nominating, and we got some fabulous candidates …” Coleman said. “And having Jill Abramson get this fabulous position, I just thought was such a happy and wonderful coincidence.”

The University’s Board of Regents is expected to approve Abramson as the speaker and an honorary degree recipient at its monthly meeting on Thursday.

Abramson became executive editor of The New York Times on Sept. 6 — succeeding former executive editor Bill Keller — and is the first woman to lead the newspaper in its 160 years of existence. She has worked at the Times since 1997 and previously served as the newspaper’s managing editor and Washington bureau chief.

“It’s a huge honor to have this job, and I’ve been focused in these beginning weeks on appointing my team of other editors to lead the news report and that’s been exciting,” Abramson said.

Rick Berke, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times and a former Daily managing editor in the late 1970s, said in an interview with the Daily that Abramson has had one of the most successful careers compared to other reporters and editors at the Times. He added that Abramson is the best person to deliver a speech to students who will soon step out of academia and into the professional world.

“I think the timing is perfect,” he said. “She’s the brand new editor of what I selfishly think is the finest journalistic institution in the world … I think she can be an inspiration to a lot of young people about getting to the top of their career.”

Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, played a large role in influencing Coleman’s decision to choose Abramson for the commencement speaker.

Eisendrath pointed to the similarity of Abramson being the first woman executive editor of the Times and University President Mary Sue Coleman’s being the first woman to lead the University.