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Abramson To Wake Forest Grads: 'Show What You're Made Of'

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of <em>The New York Times</em>, speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University on Monday.
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of <em>The New York Times</em>, speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University on Monday.

When Wake Forest University officials invited Jill Abramson to deliver this year's commencement speech, they probably didn't realize they'd be in the midst of one of the biggest media controversies of the year.

Abramson's comments to the university's graduating class Monday morning were her first since being ousted as New York Times executive editor.

"I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university," Abramson joked, a nod to the media throng who traveled to cover her speech. "I'm impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention, as well they should."

Abramson spoke of resilience, of failing, getting dumped, getting rejected from graduate school — and having the grace and bravery to keep going.

"Graduating from Wake Forest means all of you have experienced success already. And some of you — and now I'm talking to anyone who's been dumped ... not gotten the job you really wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school — you know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want," she said. "When that happens, show what you are made of."

Moments like this and others in the speech drew extended applause from the audience.

Abramson, 60, was the first woman to hold the position of executive editor at the Times, a job she took in September 2011. She joined the Times in 1997 after working for nearly 10 years at the Wall Street Journal. Prior to serving as executive editor, she served as the Times' Washington editor and bureau chief. She became managing editor in 2003.

Competing narratives surrounding Abramson's abrupt departure from the Times have emerged since the news was announced last week. Some observers have suggested Abramson fell victim to sexism, particularly by Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Meanwhile, others have said Abramson was fired for mismanaging the newspaper and alienating its staffers. You can read more coverage of the controversy at NPR's The Two-Way.

What's next for me? I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you ... scared, but also excited.

In her remarks she did not discuss the reasons for her departure directly, but her comments to the students about overcoming setbacks seemed particularly apt.

Abramson said it was "the honor of my life to lead the newsroom," and called the paper "such an important and irreplaceable institution."

In her speech, she addressed a question many had raised — whether she'd remove one of her tattoos, the signature New York Times "T," from her back.

"Not a chance," she said.

The speech also served as a prominent reminder that while commencement speeches feel like an almost routine part of any graduation ceremony, speaker choice can be confounding for colleges. Big-name picks can spur donations and news headlines and excite soon-to-be graduates, but they can also invite controversy, protest and criticism.

Abramson had previously planned to attend the Brandeis University graduation, where she was to receive an honorary degree; she elected not to attend. But she kept her plans to speak to Wake Forest's 1,900 graduates, their family members and friends.

"My only reluctance in showing up today is that the small media circus following me would take away from you, the fabulous class of 2014. What total knockouts you are," Abramson said.

What she didn't say, however, is where she'll go next.

"What's next for me? I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you," Abramson said. "And like you, I'm a little scared but also excited."

While we're talking about commencement speeches, we'd be remiss if we didn't point you to our collection of the best commencement speeches ever, containing more than 300 graduation addresses going back to 1774.

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