Journalist promotes kindness to graduates at Rackham ceremony


Robin D. Givhan said she thinks about kindness often nowadays, and she encouraged those receiving University of Michigan advanced degrees to do the same.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who grew up in Detroit and received a master’s degree from U-M, Givhan delivered the keynote address May 3 at Hill Auditorium to those receiving master’s and doctoral degrees. She also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from U-M.

As a journalist who now serves as the senior critic-at-large for The Washington Post, Givhan said she has enjoyed the gift of being able to stand in others’ shoes, if only for a short while.

Whether they were stilettos walking up the steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sneakers worn by a First Lady touting the importance of healthy foods in neighborhoods or worn-down shoes from roaming Manhattan in search of loved ones in the wake of 9/11, Givhan said the people walking in those shoes all shared one thing in common.

“The thing I’ve realized is that in every case, the person in those situations is only human — no matter how rich or famous or powerful,” she said. “They are hopeful and flawed. They’re imperfect.”

Photo of Washington Post senior critic-at-large Robin Ghivan speaking at the Rackham Graduate Exercises
Washington Post senior critic-at-large Robin Ghivan encouraged the Rackham Graduate Exercises audience to exhibit kindness at a time when “a polite response is often met with more anger for an unwillingness to engage in a verbal wrestling match.” (Photo by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography)

Givhan asked graduates to not demand perfection from themselves and to give others the grace to be imperfect, especially those who differ from or disagree with them. She said that’s where kindness comes in, and she is struck by how quaint a notion it is and how “our instinct now is to lead with anger and vitriol.”

She said she has encountered a change in her readers over the years. When she used to respond to negative emails, readers were often appreciative.

“Today, a polite response is often met with more anger for an unwillingness to engage in a verbal wrestling match,” she said. “I’m not sure why we’re so ready to punch each other in the face. But we’re all in this together — otherwise, this will disintegrate. We need to remember that.”

Givhan explained that she had always been interested in writing and eventually settled on studying journalism, which she called “both a light and an amplifier for stories that get lost in the shadows or are muffled into near silence.”

She said that in the same way dedicated journalists aim to keep watch over the functioning of democracy, the graduates also have a special role using their lever of powers — institutional, financial, social and artistic.

“Use that to build bridges to help others reach their full capacity,” she said. “Use it to construct safety nets to catch strivers when they have a misstep and fall. Use it to hold those in public service to the highest standards, allow them to change their mind when the circumstances evolve, but to not let them lose sight of their moral compass.

“Use your allegiance to research, data and analysis to keep those who are fearful and frustrated from succumbing to their emotions. And use your emotional intelligence to help write the country’s next chapters with ambition, artistry and grace.”

Watch a video of the 2024 Rackham Graduate Exercises.

President Santa J. Ono also addressed the graduates, expressing his hope that they look back on their time at U-M fondly.

“The lessons you’ve learned, the relationships you’ve nurtured, and the experiences you’ve embraced have set the stage for your future endeavors,” he said. “As we navigate through an increasingly complex world, the expertise that you have earned here will be more important than ever.”

Rackham Dean Michael Solomon said that, in preparing his remarks, he paid a visit to the Bentley Historical Library to research commencement addresses dating back to 1878 and noticed two shared themes through the years.

“One is that speakers have called upon you as graduates to address challenges, both timeless and emergent,” he said. “The second is their universal recognition of the significance of your individual achievements. Indeed, commencement is a moment — in fact, the moment — in which you are publicly recognized for what you have achieved.”


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