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The numbers are startling.

In the fall of 2011, Southern Illinois University Carbondale had an enrollment of 19,817 students. Last fall, SIU listed its enrollment at 14,554. In raw numbers, that’s a decline of 5,263. That represents a drop of 26.6 percent.

Those numbers have significance beyond the pure math. With Tuesday’s announcement that Jennifer DeHaemers had been hired as associate chancellor for enrollment management, the university also noted the position had been vacant since 2014. And, there had not been a full-time person in the position since 2011.

The obvious question goes beyond why. The real question is WHY?

SIU Carbondale has been hemorrhaging students since 2011. SIU administrators, SIU Board of Trustees members, SIU faculty members and citizens of Southern Illinois have been wringing their hands over the steady decline for more than a decade only to learn the university has been without a full-time recruiter for seven years.

That fact falls somewhere between mind-boggling and breathtaking. The numbers clearly indicate SIU’s enrollment decline became more precipitous after then the last full-time enrollment manager left.

Is there a cause-and-effect relationship? Is it coincidental? Reality suggests it’s a combination of both, but having someone in that role likely would have mitigated the decline.

Granted, there have been a lot of distractions since 2011. The State of Illinois went without a budget for more than two years. There was an open civil war on the SIU Board of Trustees for a couple of years. And, in recent months the campus has been embroiled in a seemingly endless debate over the school’s internal organization.

Through it all, there has been one constant. Enrollment numbers are dropping with stunning regularity. In the last three years, freshman enrollment numbers have dropped by 21.55 percent, 26 percent and 18.13 percent, respectively.

Surely, someone at some point in the last three years would have thought, “Maybe we need an enrollment guru.”

The appointment of Ms. DeHaemers is a small, but important step, in the right direction.

At this moment, SIU Carbondale needs an infusion of leadership and direction. There is nothing more important to the future of SIUC than recruitment and retention of students.

We enjoy a thought-provoking philosophical discussion, but at the moment, getting students interested in pursuing an education in Carbondale is more important than whether the university is divided into schools or departments.

If you’re down by two touchdowns and the opponent is driving, your first priority is to get the ball back. Once the ball is in your hands, you turn your focus to scoring.

Turning the enrollment decline around is not going to be simple. There are many variables at work here. But, it’s pretty clear the university is going to have to help itself. Setting priorities to recruiting students and giving them the tools they need to succeed is a necessary first step.

The Board of Trustees, the administration and faculty needs to put forth a united front on recruitment, and do it now. There is nothing about a divided, tumultuous campus that is appealing to prospective students.

We would also like to see the Board of Trustees and administration take a stand against the dissolution of the SIU system.

When President Randy Dunn takes a neutral position on the legislation introduced by Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, to separate the two Southern Illinois University campuses, it is not truly neutral. It is a tacit approval of the action.

That certainly seems it would have a chilling effect on students and their parents who are considering SIU Carbondale for their undergraduate degree.

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