He did not know it at the time, but southwest Wisconsin was exactly what Dr. Jason Wood was looking for as he began his job search earlier this year.
“I was looking at rural areas of the country,” he said. “I love the small-town environment. I was doing searching on rural areas and I was targeting specific states. So I think this one came up as I was looking at the colleges in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin, geographically, there is hunting and fishing and that was appealing. Certainly, the east side of the state has the urban centers, but the west side and the northern parts are very rural and so I came across the website and saw that the president was retiring. I started calling people and finding out more, and went through the process and I think it turned out OK for me.”
Wood is entering his second month on the job as president at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore. Prior to his job search, Wood had no prior knowledge of the College he leads or the City of nearly 2,500 it calls home.
“I knew very little about it,” he said. “I just started looking at the Midwest – Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio – those are all states that I considered and looked at. I had a couple other opportunities and offers, but this one, it fit.
From my perspective, I think it was a really good fit.”
Wood grew up in rural northern Idaho. He aspired to become a professional basketball player, but admittedly that dream “died early on.”
“I went to school and changed majors several times like everyone else,” he recalled. “I lived in Columbia, South America, for a couple years and picked up Spanish. When I got home from Columbia I decided I wanted to go into education and coach basketball.
“I went down the teaching path, majored in Spanish, taught high school Spanish and coached basketball, and absolutely loved it. I found out how similar coaching and teaching are. What I really loved about both of them was being involved in the learning process. So I fell in love with teaching as much as I did coaching. I enjoyed getting to know the students on the court, in the classroom and in the community and watching them grow and develop.”
Life was good. But as Wood’s family grew, making ends meet became an issue. He made a career change out of financial necessity and took a job as a college recruiter at Blue Mountain Community College. He thought he might be able to learn how to recruit students to play college-level basketball.
“So I was at a community college and really came to appreciate the mission, the open-access mission, the opportunity for everyone to learn and grow and pursue their dreams in a way that was affordable and high-quality,” he recalled. “And as part of that job it was fine for me to do the recruitment, but it worked so much better when I got other people involved at the college.
“If there was a faculty member over a program that could meet with a student that was interested in that program, they did a much better job of explaining with passion and enthusiasm what their program was about and how it would help the student.”
As he completed his first year on the job at Blue Mountain Community College, Wood had applied for a doctoral program and was offered a scholarship. When the president of the College offered him a promotion, Wood was at a crossroads.
“So I had a choice and was at a crossroads,” he said. “Do I go and get my doctorate and pursue becoming a university professor, or do I take this supervisory position that would pay some more money? I took the supervisory position.”
Wood became the Senior Director of College Preparation at Blue Mountain Community College. Two years later he sought a doctorate in Community College Leadership at Oregon State University. As he sought his doctorate, Wood became Dean, Curry County, of Southwestern Oregon Community College.
“I was at an outreach, satellite location 100 miles away from the main campus,” he said. “I learned a lot about small town operations. I think there were five or six employees, is all, at the branch campus. We did the advising and the financial aid and found adjuncts to teach classes and did what we could on a shoestring.
“I think our charge was to use popsicles and duct tape to engineer a ship that could take us to the moon. It felt like we were always dealing with the scraps that were left over, in terms of trying to put things together.”
After making the most of popsicles and duct tape, Wood became Dean of Student Services at Klamath Community College before spending the last five years at Central Wyoming College, where he served as Vice President for Academic Services and Executive Vice President for Student and Academic Services.
One could argue Wood’s path to Fennimore began as a 19-year-old in Columbia.
“I saw a lot of poverty and that had a huge effect on me,” he said. “Probably the hardest part for me was to come to the realization that along with that poverty, there was no opportunity. It was so hard to just not be able to have any influence in terms of helping the people pull themselves out of that cycle. And in my young mind, education just seemed to be the answer. That if people could have access to education, they could improve their circumstance. So I gravitated toward the education programs.
“Now you don’t have to go to Columbia to see examples of poverty. You can go into our high schools and see people that are affected by, or at least limited by, a lack of opportunity or resources. I think that is the beauty of being in a two-year college and especially a technical college. We have the opportunity to not only get you into a curriculum that can make a difference, but we are going to help you find a job on the back end that will help you fund the difference that you want in your life.”
Wood believes Southwest Tech is well-positioned to “take the next step forward” thanks to the work of his predecessors.
“I admire the grit the college has shown in the past,” he said. “I am not a Southwest Tech historian, but I do enjoy the stories of Dr. Dick Rogers dealing with extreme budget cuts and trying to keep the doors open and doing what could be done at the time to rally folks together to make sure the college kept operating and operating at a very high level. And Dr. Karen Knox, her vision to more than double the size of the footprint of the college and involve the community in passing a referendum that supported that growth. It takes someone to think, ‘What if?’
“If I were to come in and say today, ‘What if we more than doubled the size of the college ’ I don’t think there would be any support of that. But how do we build from today going forward, so that maybe we are not looking at doubling the physical footprint, but we are looking to triple the impact we have on the local workforce? So a nod to the past and what I sense to be our collective moxy, will certainly propel us going forward. Dr. Duane Ford was president as major changes came through the political process. I think all three of those have shown tremendous leadership skills in positing the college and the opportunity is now ours to build on that.”
One of the major changes in the political process dealt Ford was Act 10, which Wood couldn’t necessarily follow closely hundreds of miles away in Wyoming.
“What I had heard of was the stuff that was happening in a number of states related to unions, so I didn’t know what Act it was and I didn’t necessarily follow it, but there were several states that addressed those issues,” he said. “You know, they are employment issues. I don’t think it is a union or an administration issue. They are just employment issues. I had been in Oregon, where there was a strong labor environment. I think the challenges and struggles that everyone went through …
I just have to hope we can come out of those better than we did.”
Wood plans to meet with each benefited employee at Southwest Tech in his first six months on the job.
“So I don’t know who did what or why or how on any of that. I do know that I think there are regrets and hard feelings,” he said of Act 10. “I am trying to listen what are their hopes and fears, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the College, what are their individual talents, so I have a good understanding of, OK, so these things happen and they were hard for people. I understand that. And I empathize. I have been in situations that were difficult for me to understand why this is occurring.
“What I hope to get out of that process are some ideas for how do we shape our culture so that regardless of what happens externally, we are who we are internally and we are true and authentic to who we are. We take care of each other, we look out for each other. I think some of that is going to involve inviting more people into the conversation and getting different perspectives.
“As the new person, there is an easy way for me to do that. I think I can ask some challenging questions to folks without having an agenda attached. Especially right now. Right now when I am listening to people they have been very open and honest with what is frustrating, what hurts, as well as the wonderful strengths of this college. So when those things are out on the table, as a College we will come together and address them and make our weaknesses strengths, and then make our strengths areas of excellence that are recognized around the country.”
What might the next step for Southwest Tech include?
“I have got some general areas that are coming out as areas we will want to focus on and one will be our students through the teaching and learning process,” Wood said. “I don’t think that is a change. I think that needs to be our north star. How do we capitalize on being a small college that has strong relationships with our students in a one-on-one basis. We know the names of our students. If that is a current strength, how do we expand that?
“My hope isn’t to come into the college and say, ‘This is what we are going to do to capitalize on it,’ my hope is to establish a kind of that environment where we all put our heads together and the ideas are thrown out on the table and then we pick a couple, based on the data, based on our analysis, and make it better than any one person could think about and get a tremendous amount of buy-in in helping our students have truly a premier learning experience. As good as it is now, how do we make it a lot better? How do we transform the experience our students have from being good to being great?”
Wood also hopes to strengthen the College’s financial position.
“I think ours is the opportunity to consider our financial situation and strengthen that, so that we have the opportunity to invest when we need to invest, whenever that may be,” he said. “We are going to look at alternative sources of funding.
We are going to look at our current processes and see if there aren’t entrepreneurial ways to maximize what we are already doing.
“I think we are also going to make a tremendous investment in our culture. I believe what Peter Drucker said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Re-phrased, I think culture trumps strategy. If we become who we want to be internally based on our values as an institution, strategy will flow for that and be much more effective.”
When not at work, Wood enjoys all that southwest Wisconsin has to offer, including hunting, fishing and camping. He and his family have already camped at Wyalusing and hope to do so again soon.
“Most importantly, if I had a choice I would spend my time just hanging out with my kids,” he said. “They range in age from 18 months to 13, so there is always something that is new and exciting and interesting. They are very talented musically, so by default I am the recipient of concerts, the home variety. I enjoy observing their talents as they work and practice and dedicate themselves to getting better. I get to be the beneficiary of those talents.”
Wood also enjoys reading and vegetable gardening. Though he fell short of his childhood goal of becoming an NBA star, he also enjoying shooting hoops now and then.
A lunch visit to the Southwest Tech cafeteria introduced Wood to the wonders of a fried cheese curd.
“I can’t remember if it was Rex Smith or the culinary students that prepared them, or both, but I had never had deep fried cheese curds,” he said. “That was new, and now I see it in restaurants and all over the place. I am afraid of what will happen to me if I am left to my own devices. It is pretty good stuff. So that was a first.”
What challenges does Wood expect to face at Southwest Tech, besides avoiding eating too many fried cheese curds?
“Any organization is going to have difficulties and challenges. Sometimes that is internally and you don’t always know what those are,” he said. “There are challenges when it gets down to prioritizing. You have budget requests from around the college that exceed the revenue. That is why I think becoming stronger as fiscal stewards will help us, as well as becoming more entrepreneurial in how we do things.
“From a cultural standpoint, the new person is coming in from out of town. How is change going to be perceived? The rate of change and the scope is important. It is incumbent on me to consider all of those and work to get folks on board. Me having a good understanding and being willing to listen and empathize with folks is key. We will figure it out. It is a winning team here. We will figure it out.”