Yesterday was Commencement, and it was an absolutely picture perfect day on campus. The weather was ideal – cool in the am, warming up to low 70s and sunny. The mood was jubilant. The campus was beyond gorgeous. And what a joy it was to look upon a sea of such happy faces stretching almost the full length of the Quad. All of our Deac parents and families beamed with pride, and throughout the weekend I witnessed so many hugs, smiles, pats on the back, and happy tears. A beautiful thing to see.
Of course the really big news and excitement of yesterday was the remarks of our Commencement speaker, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times who went through a very public and unexpected dismissal from her post. This was going to be her first public statement since leaving the Times, and her story had been widely run on all the major media outlets – with lots of people speculating on gender equity issues, pay discrepancies, leadership styles and accepted gender norms, “leaning in,” and “glass cliffs.” You name it, some pundit has been working the angle. NBC had broadcast from campus on Sunday about her speech. There was a segment about her (and broader issues of women in positions of power) on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. Huge deal. And the eyes of the world literally were on us.
Our alumnus and Trustee Al Hunt (’65), who is himself a world-class journalist who spent four decades at the Wall Street Journal and now is at Bloomberg, introduced her. For those who know Al Hunt, he is a great speaker. Lively, fun, great with an audience. He is fiercely proud of his Wake Forest connections, tirelessly supportive of his alma mater, and very giving to other people. (Aside: as a very young staff member, I once had the privilege of picking him up from the Charlotte airport when he was coming to campus, and during the drive he was gracious enough to let me pepper him with questions about Washington the whole time, answering everything I asked. He was interesting, interested, very smart. I am absolutely certain that he had work to do in the car, but instead he spent that hour talking to me, and I will always be grateful). So when he gave Jill a glowing a wonderful introduction and talked about how he mentored her early in her career, and how she was fearless, I could easily see that he would have been just as giving to her as he was to my curious mind.
Then Jill Abramson took the podium and delivered a speech that was smart, classy, full of grit and openness. I’ve been working Commencements at Wake for 15 years now and I am not sure I have heard a better message. She addressed head on the fact that she lost a job that hurt, and that now is the time to be resilient:
“Very early last Thursday, my sister called me and she said, ‘I know dad would be as proud of you today as he was the day you became executive editor of the New York Times. I had been fired the previous day, so I knew what she was trying to say. It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we handled our successes. ‘Show what you are made of,’ he would say.
Graduating from Wake Forest means you have experienced success already. And some of you – and now I’m talking to anyone who has been dumped – have not gotten the job you really wanted or have received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the disappointment of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”
She talked about the importance of the free press, telling truth to power, and why it is important to be true to yourself. She mentioned some of her journalistic heroes, and told the story of a young boy in New York who had been killed by a speeding taxi, and how she and some colleagues (who had been badly hurt in similar accidents) wanted to be their voice.
Jill Abramson also showed great humor in her speech and connected to some of our own Wake Forest institutions: “Some of you have faced danger or even a soul-scorching loss, but most of you haven’t. And leaving the protective cocoon of school for the working world must seem scary. You will have a dozen different jobs and will try different things. Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere, journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable, is what makes our democracy so resilient. And this is the work I will remain very much a part of.
My only reluctance in showing up today was that the small media circus following me would detract attention away from you, the fabulous Class of 2014. What total knockouts you are.
What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared but also excited. You know, I don’t really think Coach Manning could find as much use much use for me, but right after this speech, I have booked a private session with Andy Chan, whose career-counseling operation is a model for universities around the world.”
The full text of her speech is online and it is well worth your time if you didn’t read it. Or watch the ceremony online. Jill Abramson hit a home run out of the park. I am not all worried for her future employment. Oh, and by the way, Jill Abramson made a game-day call and asked our Commencement office if she would be allowed to stay and shake the hands of each graduate as he/she passed across the stage. That is a probably two hour gig, nonstop, and she volunteered. Another speaker who did that: Colin Powell. Classy move.
So that was the big news, but there were a million great moments, from Baccalaureate on Sunday through the last names being called and the ROTC cadets being commissioned (always a poignant and proud moment, and thank you for giving those young men and women a standing ovation. They deserve it.). To help you live (or relive) the moments, here are some options:
For those who want to experience the full range of Commencement coverage, the Commencement news site has it.
Our amazing University Photographer, Ken Bennett, has posted an online Flickr gallery
For a social media recap, visit our Tagboard site, which collected the best of the Tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram pictures with the hashtag #wfugrad
For all of you with graduating Deacs in the Class of 2014, we salute you, and them. It has been a privilege having your students with us on campus, we are proud to call them our alumni, and we hope you know that our parents and families are just as much a part of Wake Forest after graduation.