This is the third installment of The Collegian's UR Employee Spotlight Series. The series tells the stories of University of Richmond staff members who tirelessly help students and work behind the scenes to better campus life.

Melanie Jenkins, the university's director of institutional effectiveness, has compared her department to the Wizard of Oz.

Like the great and powerful wizard, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness is rarely seen by students. The unit is not a highlight of campus tours, and the people who work within it do not show up on the glossy pages of college brochures. The department is not a popular topic of dinner-time conversation, and many students are unaware of its very presence on campus.

Yet, unlike the deeds of the Wizard, the work to which Jenkins and the other members of her office dedicate their time is far more than an elaborate illusion. 

Their role involves assessing the quality of life at the university, making the school's leadership aware of things that should be changed and proposing solutions to any problems they may find.

Jenkins' workdays largely consist of meetings, which often focus on data collection and management, she said. She also meets with members of on-campus programs to help them develop surveys or make changes to their processes. Outside of meetings, she is busy analyzing data and creating surveys.

Jenkins, an alumna of Christopher Newport University, said she started her career in institutional research at Northern Virginia Community College 14 years ago.

“It combined all the things that I loved the most about my undergraduate experience, which was research, statistics, writing and analytics,” Jenkins said.

Before coming to Richmond, Jenkins also worked in institutional research at Tufts University and Suffolk University, both in Massachusetts. Although her job titles remained fairly consistent, Jenkins said the different struggles and goals of each institution meant the focus of her work had varied widely.

Jenkins began working at the University of Richmond in May. She said her primary goal for this year was to learn more about the school and to get to know more members of the campus community.

Although she only began working here a few months ago, she has thrown herself into the university's work toward its reaffirmation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Lori Schuyler, Vice President for Policy and Planning, said. 

The process of reaffirmation, which happens every 10 years, requires participation from departments across campus and will include a campus visit by accreditors in March. As the liaison for the process, Jenkins plays a large role in leading the reaffirmation efforts.

“She jumped in quickly and got to know the particular requirements of our region and helped lead the process of getting our compliance documentation done,” Schuyler said. “I've been really pleased by how quickly she jumped in to make sure that she was contributing all she could and was ready to lead that project into the future.”

Although Jenkins has a variety of obligations as she simultaneously leads the reaffirmation process, acclimates herself to the university and works on a variety of other projects, Schuyler said she also had gone beyond her duties in increasing the Office of Institutional Effectiveness' visibility to other campus departments.

“One of her successes is that that office can be a little bit invisible, but it does really crucial work,” Schuyler said. “I think one of the things she's done a nice job of as she's been getting to know the university is also help people on campus realize what a great resource it can be for them to help them to do their work more easily or get information that they need to make informed decisions.”

Campus departments are not the only units that gain from Jenkins' work. The Office of Institutional Effectiveness is necessary, Jenkins said, because of the benefits students receive from it, even as they are unaware of its existence.

“Institutional research is important for every institution because it forces them to be accountable and see how they're impacting their students,” Jenkins said. “We make strategic plans and strategic promises about education, and your institutional research office is the one that's going to make sure you're honest about whether or not you're headed in the right direction.”

Contact feature writer Savannah Wilson at savannah.wilson@richmond.edu.