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Dr. J. Luke Wood to Become President of Sacramento State University

In the search for its ninth permanent president, Sacramento State University didn’t have to look far. Dr. J. Luke Wood, a Sac State alum, was appointed to the position today. He’ll take over for retiring President Robert S. Nelson on July 16th.

Wood is currently San Diego State University’s (SDSU) vice president for student affairs and campus diversity and chief diversity officer. He sees himself as evidence of the power of a Sacramento State education.

Dr. J. Luke Wood, incoming president of Sacramento State UniversityDr. J. Luke Wood, incoming president of Sacramento State University“I'm African American. I'm male. I'm a former foster child, and I'm a student who struggled with food insecurities and housing insecurities, and I'm a first-generation college student, but I went to Sac State and it was an environment where I had mentors and people who supported me, and programs and services that I benefited from,” Wood said in an interview with Diverse. “And if Sac State could make a person like me successful, then they can help create that kind of pathway for any student.”

Sacramento State was critical to Wood’s ascension to academic and administrative stardom after a difficult childhood. He and his twin brother were born while their mother was in prison and spent time in foster care. They were also frequently disciplined, a phenomenon that Wood would go on to explore in his research on inequitable suspensions and expulsions between racial groups. His experience at Sac State played a role in his career focus on student success.

“The work that I do as a scholar is directly influenced by [the knowledge that] educators serve as critical agents to help students, particularly our minoritized students, navigate institutions that have historically struggled with facilitating access,” he said.

Once Wood had access, he made the most of it. After graduating from Sacramento State with a bachelor’s in Black History and Politics, Wood returned for his master’s in Higher Education Leadership. He then moved on to Arizona State University, where he earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis in higher education.

Wood began his academic career as a professor at San Diego State University (SDSU) in 2011, and the next year became co-director, with Dr. Frank Harris III, of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), which focuses on eliminating equity gaps for students of color. He became the first Black faculty member to be named a Distinguished Professor at SDSU in 2017. Wood currently serves on the California Racial Equity Commission to tackle structural racism across the state.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford, EHE Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University, praised the choice.

“J. Luke Wood is phenomenal,” she said. “He’s a visionary individual, a brilliant Black male. When he shares his life experiences, you see some hellafied resilience, surpassing all odds and expectations.”

Dr. Frank Harris III, co-director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State UniversityDr. Frank Harris III, co-director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State UniversityHarris, the co-director of CCEAL, agreed. 

“I’m excited for Sac State because I think they’re getting one of the most amazing educational leaders that this country has ever seen,” he said. “When it comes to having a vision for how to move an institution to new heights by the way it serves students, by the way it executes its mission, coming up with innovative solutions to very challenging problems, there’s no one better than Dr. Wood.”

Harris said that Wood played a key role in helping SDSU develop its Building Inclusive Excellence Program, which he credited with increasing faculty diversity. According to Harris, Wood’s work was critical to getting SDSU to implement institutional equity plans in all its colleges, and he was essential in leading the university through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The big thing for Luke is that he’s able to do these things when times are challenging, when resources may not always be there, and when there’s resistance,” said Harris. “He’s able to get buy-in and just really get things done.”

Harris thought that Wood’s appointment would help Sacramento State get even better at what it already does well.

“I would expect the university to make meaningful gains in its rankings,” he said. “I expect enrollment to grow. I would expect its faculty and staff to become more diverse.”

Ford thought that he would also continue to diversify the student body.

“I expect that he will be extremely influential and impactful in recruiting and retaining minoritized students, especially males,” she said. “His experiences have been so informative that will be able to be an asset to students who are often marginalized.”    

  Wood says that his first mission once he takes office will be to listen.

“The immediate priority will be hearing from the campus community, particularly from student leaders who are wrestling with these same issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion, around student achievement and graduation rates,” he said.

Wood anticipates challenges in the near future around enrollment and access, as well as a potential economic downturn, but says that Sacramento State is well-positioned to take them on thanks to the work of his predecessor. Wood wants to continue Sac State’s history of research and hopes to expand it going forward.

Harris applauded the broader impact of Wood’s ascension.

“Whenever you have an African American president, that’s always a big deal because that tends to not be very many,” he said.

But Harris said that the significance went beyond Wood’s identity.

“You have a president who is unapologetically equity-minded--and we know there’s a lot of resistance to DEI across the country,” he said. “I think Dr. Wood’s appointment shows that you can be committed to equity and still advance in your career as an educational leader to the highest level.”

Wood has never felt that becoming a college president was a necessary feather for his cap. But Sacramento State, the institution that helped save him, made him think twice.

“If there was one place and one place only that I would have the passion, the dedication to be in it for the long-term, it would be my own alma mater,” he said. “It’s the only institution I applied to. It’s the only institution that I ever plan to apply to. They have a history of presidents with long tenures, and I hope to continue that legacy.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected]

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