By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-in-Chief
Whatever challenges and obstacles faced by many of Sacramento State’s 31,000 students – more than 13,000 of them Black and Latino – there’s a good chance incoming President Dr. Jonathan Luke Wood has been there.
Wood was named the university’s ninth president — and the second African American — May 24 and begins his tenure July 16. He has a distinguished career in education equity and brings a diverse personal background to the position.
Wood, 41, and his twin brother Josh were born while their biological mom was in jail in Oakland, then shipped off to foster care in McCloud, a logging town in rural Siskiyou County that now is about 85% white and 1.5% Black.
“We were born as wards of the court and raised by foster parents who usually raised about 14 kids at a time,” Wood says. “Across the street from us was a group home, so between our two houses there was a large segment of children who came from a system-impacted background.”
The brothers were lucky enough to be adopted by their loving foster parents, but that couldn’t protect them from an almost daily onslaught of racist bullies. Jonathan (who goes by Luke) and Josh were suspended so many times for fighting that they had their own special desk outside the principal’s office.
That’s when Wood decided he was going to spend his life fighting to ensure Black students were treated equitably and got the same chances as any other student to succeed.
The brothers shined as student athletes in high school. Luke was prominent in student government, which launched him on the path to public service and higher education.
On the strength of his grades and extracurricular activities, he was accepted into Boys State, the American Legion’s leadership program, which opened the door to Sac State.
“I lived in the residence halls, was able to visit the Capitol and I fell in love with Sacramento and Sac State,” Wood says. “My brother and I lived together in Jenkins Hall.”
Wood enrolled in Sac State’s Educational Opportunity Program. EOP is designed to help first-generation students from low-income backgrounds stay in college. “I received a tremendous amount of support – I learned that not everyone who goes to college graduates and succeeds,” he says. “I started to become aware of equity issues.”
Black male graduation rate was only about 4%. At the end of his freshman year, he ran for student government specifically to focus on how to provide the support young people need to cross the finish line in college.
Wood went on to serve as vice president of academic affairs and learned about government finance.
His senior year, Wood ran for student government president against his brother. “My mother was not pleased there was dissention in the family and urged us to work together.” So the brothers flipped a coin, Josh won, and they rode to victory as president and vice president.
The campus slogan at the time, “Leadership Begins Here,” rang true, and many of their contemporaries realized that vision. They include Sacramento Vice Mayor Eric Guerra; Robert Abelon, who became deputy secretary of state; and Folsom Lake College President Art Pimentel. Josh Wood is CEO of the Sacramento Region Business Association.
But college “was not a seamless, easy path toward graduation,” Wood recalls. “I was the embodiment of a student who is less likely to succeed: a first-generation college student, neither of my adoptive parents went to college; an African American male student who also struggled mightily with food insecurity and housing insecurity.”
Faculty members mentored him, Sac State provided needed resources, “and it was because of that community I was eventually able to graduate.”
Accepting the job as Sac State president “is about me giving back to the community. If a Sac State can make a person like Luke Wood succeed, they can help anybody.”
Research Draws National Attention
Wood comes to Sac State from San Diego State, where he served in several administrative roles, most recently vice president for student affairs and campus diversity. He says he’s thrilled to once again work alongside his mentor, Interim Provost Carlos Nevarez. They have co-authored several books, including “Community College Leadership and Management: Reframing Institutional Practices for Student Success” in 2020.
“He was a former student in my educational leadership class who quickly proved to be an analytical thinker, critical thinker and problem solver,” Nevarez recalls. “He has the gift to be able to think in the abstract about where an organization needs to be in five, six years from now.”
Once he has established reachable goals, he’s able to bring in people who can make them happen, Nevarez said. “What guides his leadership is diversity, inclusivity and social justice, and those values will allow us to be more equitable in everything we do at Sac State.”
Wood has become a nationally recognized champion in the fight for equity and inclusion. He received his bachelor’s in Black history and politics — a special major — at Sac State, and a master’s in higher education leadership focusing on student affairs. He went on to get his master’s in education in early childhood curriculum and instruction, and doctorate in education leadership at Arizona State University.
His research on the unconscionable rate of Black suspensions, particularly young students, has led to an examination of unequal disciplinary policies by numerous school districts, including the two worst offenders in California: Elk Grove and Sacramento City Unified. Those districts are largely responsible for Sacramento being the state’s Black suspension capital, as reported in The OBSERVER.
Outgoing Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen – himself a champion of diversity – first took note of Wood’s pioneering work on the debilitatingly high rate of Black suspensions and expulsions in Sacramento’s public schools in The OBSERVER’s report.
“Luke has been a very strong voice for African Americans in particular,” Nelsen says. “That put him on my radar; we had him here to address a special conference for young men of color and he spoke of ‘racelighting.’”
Wood defines racelighting as “the process whereby people of color question their own thoughts and actions due to systematically delivered racialized messages that make them second-guess their own lived experiences with racism.”
“A common example is when a Black student is told, with a sense of surprise, that they are ‘actually smart,’” Wood says.
Four Challenges For Incoming President
Some distinct challenges will greet Wood when he assumes office in July.
“He’s going to have to make some very hard decisions on where and how to spend money,” and where to make cuts, Nelsen says. The California State University Board of Trustees has said the 23 schools in the system must raise tuition to meet costs.
Wood, a proven fundraiser, says he’s up to the task. “Over the last three years [at San Diego State], we raised over $30 million in philanthropic donations and another $5 million in sponsorships for scholarships, resource centers and a whole host of opportunities, including post college guidance for students,” he says.
At San Diego State, with an enrollment close to 36,000 students, he managed a $46 million annual budget and an investment portfolio of $276 million.
The key to the university’s financial health is maintaining enrollment: the more students you have, and graduate, the more state funding you get. “We are one of only five CSU institutions out of 23 that have maintained our enrollment,” Nelsen says. Some schools lost as much as 35%. “You can’t transform lives unless you have lives to transform.”
Wood, who served as president for the Council of Community Colleges, said he plans to rely on Sac State’s already robust transfer pipeline, as well as making sure the road to success at Sac State begins in public schools. “I have oftentimes heard from people in industry who will prioritize those who have transferred; often community college grads have more life experience and are more committed to learning,” Wood said.
He also plans to deepen Sac State’s partnerships with high schools and continue to address the fact that Black suspension rates remain high. It starts from kindergarten through early third grade, where “some of the greatest level of suspension inequity occurs,” he says. “We must expand from exclusionary discipline – suspensions, expulsions, loss of recess, referrals, use of exclusions, restraints and isolations. Sac State can be a partner with them in addressing their equity gaps, to ensure a seamless pipeline from K-12 to community college and ultimately higher education and the economic development of our region.”
Wood also must ensure that students graduate in four years. Between 2016 and 2022, Sac State has seen tremendous improvement: from 9% to 28% overall; 4.5% to 20.1% of African American students; 8.8% to 27% of Hispanic students; 12.5% to 33.3% of Native American students; 5.5% to 27.1% of Asian American students; 12.1% to 24.1% of multiracial students; and 13.7% to 36% of white students.
Wood cited a CalMatters report showing that so far, only San Diego State among CSUs has closed the equity gap between Black students and their peers. “Going from 8% to 28% is a remarkable trajectory,” Wood said.
Finally, the era of COVID has upended many academic careers, Nelsen says.
“Because of COVID we’re seeing nearly double the number of Black and Hispanic students failing,” Nelsen says, particularly Black male students. “It’s about dollars, the ability to have computers and broadband, to be able to work at home, put food and money on the table – in the Black community, more jobs were lost during COVID. In a crowded, small home filled with noisy little brothers and sisters around, where can you go hide and study?”
Wood said having teachers who look like their students of color and can serve as mentors is key to preventing academic failure. At San Diego State, “we doubled the number of Black faculty and increased Latinx faculty by 29%.”
Sac State now has 11,258 (36%) Latino students and 162 faculty; 1,929 (6%) Black students and 92 faculty; 7,212 (23%) White students and 1,093 faculty; 6,144 (20%) Asian/Pacific Islander students and 259 faculty; 1,765 (4%) multiracial students and 31 faculty; and 83 Native American students and 18 faculty.
Wood has returned to Sacramento with his wife, Idara Essien-Wood, a tenured professor at San Diego State in childhood development “and one of my main research partners,” and three children ages 7 to 12. “It’s good to be coming home,” he said.
Nelsen, who knows the shoals and eddies ahead, declared, “I think he’s the right leader at the right time at the right place.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.