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Alumnus J. Luke Wood is appointed Sacramento State's next president

J. Luke Wood returns to his alma mater as Sacramento State's ninth president. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Sacramento State’s incoming president is “Made at Sac State” and proud of it.

CSU trustees on Wednesday, May 24, announced the appointment of J. Luke Wood to lead the University as its ninth president. Wood is coming from San Diego State University, where he is vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity and chief diversity officer.

Wood, 41, will assume the presidency July 16, after the departure of retiring President Robert S. Nelsen, who has led the University since 2015.

Wood is clear about his motivation to be president.

“It’s about investing back in the community that invested in me,” Wood said. “I know what Sac State is capable of doing. I was a Black male, former foster child, first-generation college student who struggled with food insecurity and housing insecurity, and was able to graduate because of the incredible people and systems of support that were in place.

“If Sac State can do that for me, it can do that for anyone.”

Wood, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Black History and Politics as well as a master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership at Sac State, has deep roots in Northern California.

“It’s really about furthering the good work that’s been done around student success, diversity and inclusion, and seeing how we can further continue those trajectories to continue to be even better every day.” - J. Luke Wood, incoming Sac State president

He grew up in the Siskiyou County town of McCloud and was raised along with his identical twin brother Joshua (also a Sac State alumnus) in a large foster home. While in high school, he attended the American Legion California Boys State summer program at Sac State.

“I just had a wonderful experience,” Wood said. “I got to see the campus, and after that there was no other institution on my radar.”

Wood was a highly engaged student leader during his time at Sac State, serving in Associated Students Inc. as a board member and in several vice president positions.

He met his future wife, San Diego State Child and Family Development Professor Idara Essien, while they were students at Sac State.

“We met at the Hornet’s Nest. I saw her and walked up to her. I walked her to class, and we’ve been together ever since,” Wood said. “Sac State gave me two degrees and a life partner.”

They have three children, ages 7 to 14, and frequently visit family in Sacramento.

Wood attended guest lectures at Sac State, as well as Hornet football playoff games last season.

“Sac State is my home base,” he said, emphasizing his enthusiasm for his new job as president.

“For me, it’s coming home.”

Wood credits Sac State’s Educational Opportunity Program, which helps low-income and educationally disadvantaged students succeed in higher education.

“I would never have graduated if not for EOP,” Wood said.

After leaving Sacramento, Wood attended 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 started at SDSU as a professor in 2011. The following year, he became co-director with Frank Harris III of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), a research and practice center aimed at reducing equity gaps between students of color and their peers.

In 2017, he became the first Black faculty member named a Distinguished Professor at San Diego State.

Wood has served as SDSU’s chief diversity officer and member of the president’s cabinet since 2018, and was named vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity in 2020.

Earlier this year, the California state Senate appointed Wood to serve on the newly established California Racial Equity Commission to address structural racism across the state.

An author of 16 books and more than 180 publications, Wood’s research focuses on racial inequality issues in education, particularly community colleges. He also studies the overexposure of suspensions of boys and students of color in K-12 schools.

“I’m a scholar, so I greatly value scholarship and high-quality teaching,” Wood said.

Wood has co-authored with Carlos Nevarez, Sac State interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, four books on leadership of colleges and organizational change.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to welcome Dr. J. Luke Wood to Sacramento State as our new president. I have worked with Dr. Wood as a scholar, colleague, and friend and I know his commitment to innovative, equity-based education will serve our students well,” Nevarez said. “Moreover, his experience perfectly aligns with Sacramento State’s strategic imperative as an Anchor University, and he will be a tireless fighter for inclusivity and belonging on our campus.

"I also want to thank President Nelsen for his service over the last eight years and for inspiring us all to put students’ success and wellness front-and-center in the work we do every day. I look forward to finding opportunities to work with Dr. Wood to build on President’s Nelsen’s exceptional legacy.”

Trustee Diego Arambula, chair of the Sacramento State Presidential Search Committee, called Wood a “champion for access, educational excellence, and student success.”

“He is an equity-driven leader with a demonstrated history of innovation, who will continue to elevate Sacramento State’s vision during its period of continued, transformational growth.”

Sacramento State has bucked a nationwide trend of declining college enrollment. Last fall, 30,883 students were enrolled at Sac State, compared with 29,000 in 2015 when Nelsen became president, making it the sixth-largest campus in the CSU system. Sac State in 2022-23 met enrollment targets set by CSU.

Four-year graduation rates have risen dramatically, jumping from 9% in 2016 to higher than 28% in fall 2022. Those improvements reflect University efforts to meet and surpass goals set in CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025.

Further, a record 9,574 students graduated from Sac State in spring 2023.

“President Nelsen has done an incredible job in increasing graduation rates and creating a sense of community at Sac State,” Wood said. “So, it’s really about furthering the good work that’s been done around student success, diversity and inclusion, and seeing how we can further continue those trajectories to continue to be even better every day.”

On becoming Sac State’s ninth permanent president (there were two interim leaders), Wood joins a list that began with Guy West, who served from the 1947 founding to 1965. Other presidents were Robert Johns (1966-69), Bernard L. Hyink (1970-1972), James G. Bond (1972-78), and W. Lloyd Johns (1978-83).

Donald R. Gerth (1984-2003) was the University’s longest-serving president. Alexander Gonzalez (2003-15) followed and ultimately handed off to Nelsen.

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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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