Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

I happened to be on the campus of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania the other day and picked up a single sheet announcement in a rack that normally held The Aquinas, the student newspaper. The Jesuit-run university was founded back in 1888 as Saint Thomas College, and when a student newspaper began publication it bore the name of the institution’s patron, St. Thomas Aquinas.

In any case, the announcement, addressed to the university community, read:

“As society has progressed, print newspapers’ readership has continued to decline. The Aquinas is no exception, and our staff is cognizant of the way society is trending. In an effort to evolve and meet the needs of our target demographic, we have decided to redesign, rebuild and revamp The Aquinas by making it an online-only publication.”

I, for one, as a former president of the University of Scranton and a writer who got his start on a college newspaper, did not consider this to be good news. In fact, I have just dedicated what will probably be my final book — my 23rd — to my friend Charlie Shreiner, editor of my college newspaper, who invited me to write a weekly column. In the dedication, I thank him for “encouraging me to write.”

I have often remarked that today’s collegiate generation has the communications equivalent of bad breath and someone should be kind enough to tell them. They are weak in both oral and written communication. Public speaking and putting words in print are not their strong suits.

The only remedy for that is practice. They should be on their feet in front of the class speaking and they should be required to write something every week. But this is generally not the case and the communications deficits remain unaddressed.

Hence my disappointment to see the demise of a college newspaper that could serve, as so many student newspapers have in the past, as a laboratory for the development of effective print communicators.

The world moves on words and numbers. If those now in college have fewer opportunities to put their words in print, it is less likely that they will be prepared to lead or even become well-informed followers.

And I have to wonder whether it is wise to leave a decision like this in the hands of student editors. They should surely have a voice in shaping the policies that form their collegiate experience, but that voice should not, in my view, be determinative.

In their one-page handout, the student editors of The Aquinas say, “We are tremendously excited about the change.” Excitement is not a good norm for measuring educational progress. I have to wonder what St. Thomas Aquinas would think of this decision.

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Jesuit Father William J. Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.