WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Days after her controversial ouster as the New York Times' executive editor, Jill Abramson today told graduating college students that the job was "the honor of my life" and encouraged them to "show what you are made of."
"What's next for me? I don't know," she said in a commencement address at Wake Forest University. "So I'm in exactly the same boat as you are. I'm a little scared but also excited," she said, drawing laughs and a standing ovation.
"I'm talking to anyone who has been dumped," she told the 1,900 graduates. "You know the sting of losing." Whatever happens, she invoked the wisdom of her dad, a college dropout who often told her: "Show what you are made of." She recalled with a smile how on her graduation day, her dad crammed his six-foot frame into her gown, adding: "He looked silly but radiant."
Watch Part 1 of Abramson's speech:
Abramson's abrupt dismissal and disappearance from the newsroom last Wednesday raised questions about her management style, her compensation and whether she was treated differently than a man would have been. Managing Editor Dean Baquet was tapped to succeed her, becoming the first African American to run the Times newsroom.
The suddenness of her departure surprised many in the industry, partly because Abramson, 60, had worked at the company for 17 years — the last three as its top editor. She was so dedicated to the Times that she has a tattoo of its letter "T," signifying her ties to the paper.
Abramson said several Wake Forest students before the speech asked her if she would now get rid of the tattoo. "Not a chance," she said, noting her pride in having worked at the Times.
Al Hunt, a columnist for Bloomberg View, introduced her to the crowd and noted the media swarm huddled in the front row. "You bring a lot of friends with you," he joked. "It's said she can be tough, no-nonsense, even pushy," he said, also calling her smart, supportive and "absolutely relentless." He added: "That's what makes a great editor."
Watch Part 2 of Abramson's speech:
Though respected as a hard-charging veteran journalist, Abramson was known to have a prickly personality that rubbed some the wrong way.
"We had an issue with management in the newsroom. And that's what's at the heart of this issue," Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told staffers, according to a Times report. In subsequent statements, he cited "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues." He also denied that Abramson, who reportedly had complained about her salary, was being paid less than her male predecessor.
Times media columnist David Carr, in a column Monday, says Times staffers were stunned by last week's announcement. "We all just looked at one another. How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones? ... The lack of decorum was stunning."
Still, Carr said his interviews with senior people in the newsroom, some of them women, back up Sulzberger's conclusion that "she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back."
"I've loved my run at the Times," Abramson said in a statement after her ouster, noting her push into digital journalism and new forms of storytelling. She has not spoken publicly about what happened so the commencement address, arranged before her firing, drew a swam of media, huddled in the front row of the 12,000 seats lined up on Hearn Plaza.
"I cannot think of a better message for the Class of 2014 than that of resilience," the school's president, Nathan Hatch, said in a statement late last week. "I am confident she will have an inspiring and timely message for our graduates."
Abramson said two of her journalism icons, Nan Robertson of the Times and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, both faced discrimination in a male-dominated newsroom, though she did not say what challenges she personally had encountered.
She noted that strong women can sometimes be attacked, citing the book she co-authored about Anita Hill. She said a detractor described Hill, a law professor who said Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, as "a little nutty and a little slutty." She said Hill sent her a note last week that said she's proud of the ousted editor.
Abramson told the graduating seniors that she left her Times office with a book of poetry by Robert Frost. She said Frost described life after graduation as "pieces of knitting to go on with" and life as "unfinished business." She encouraged the graduates to "get on with your knitting."