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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


HONORARY DEGREE RECIPIENTS

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. When the Times announced Abramson’s promotion on June 2, Eisendrath called Abramson’s secretary that day to beat other schools that would likely ask her to give a keynote address.

“I knew if we didn’t grab her, Harvard would … I wanted her for Michigan,” Eisendrath said.

An Honorary Degree Committee typically reviews potential speakers and submits nominations to the University president, but there was no time to get the committee’s approval, so Eisendrath went straight to Coleman.

“I called Mary Sue and said, ‘What do you think? There’s no time for a committee deliberation. You either have to say OK or not OK.’” Eisendrath said. “She called back the next day and said, ‘You bet.’”

Eisendrath, a close friend of Abramson, met her about six years ago when she was a judge for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, an organization founded by Eisendrath that grants awards to journalists under age 35. When Abramson heard about the Knight-Wallace Fellows and their travels to places such as Russia, Turkey and South America she wanted to get involved, Eisendrath said.

“It was half a joke about travel, but word at the time was that the only place she gets to travel are Washington, New York and maybe L.A.,” Eisendrath said.

Since getting involved with the program, Abramson has traveled with the fellows to Argentina and Brazil. Last December, she led a seminar in Sao Paulo, Brazil about the WikiLeaks scandal and the Times’s decision-making process about choosing what to print.

Amber Hunt, a 2010 Knight Wallace Fellow and current Associated Press editor for North Dakota and South Dakota, met Abramson on the trip to Brazil.

“She came across as such a true fan of the Times and an honest-to-goodness, gritty-as-hell New Yorker to the core,” Hunt said. “It’s clear she takes a lot of pride not just in journalism, but in her specific job. They have a strong woman at the helm.”

Hunt added: “It was quite a surprise to watch the Times’s future No. 1 samba like a pro in Sao Paulo.”

In addition to traveling with the fellows, Abramson has visited the reporters in Ann Arbor and invited them to The New York Times office in New York City. She’s also helped shape the fellowship by creating ways for the journalists to learn multimedia and online production skills.

“She’s passionately interested in helping young journalists,” Eisendrath said.

In the past, the University has invited successful journalists to give a commencement address, including ABC News anchor Robert Woodruff in 2008 and Automobile Magazine founder David Davis Jr. in 2004. Other journalists have received University honorary degrees like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who gave the graduate exercises address last spring.

Berke said journalists have an interesting perspective about the world and society because they’re “observers to history.”

“Our jobs are to try to give people a sense of what’s going on in the world from a closed in, yet detached perspective, and I think that kind of background experience can be very valuable when it comes time to talking to graduates about life and the country and what might be ahead for them,” Berke said.

Jeremy Peters, a media reporter for The New York Times and a former Daily news editor, wrote in an e-mail interview that Abramson’s speech will likely resonate with students who are about to “enter a world that is so unpredictable.”

“She has had a front row seat as our society has undergone seismic change over the last decade, and she has seen it all through the prism of a business that has evolved more dramatically than most,” Peters wrote.

In the event of breaking news, a natural disaster or other world catastrophe, Abramson said she is confident she’ll still make it to Crisler Arena to give her speech.

“I don’t foresee that a news event would prevent me from coming,” she said.

Correction appended:A previous version of this story misidentified Rick Berke's title.


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