New president of CSU Global describes the future of online higher education and the focus it takes to get there

By Michael Humphrey
Portraits by Mary Neiberg

March 15, 2021

Top down view of a woman sitting in a blue chair.

WHAT MAKES FOR THE BEST leadership – global vision or an eye for detail?

For Pamela Toney, a first-generation college student and the new president of CSU Global, the question poses a false dichotomy. Both vision and eye for detail are needed to lead an institution, she said.

“To help a student get financial aid or help an employee be better at their job, you have to have a system,” Toney said. “Otherwise, it just turns into chaos.”

Toney recently took charge of CSU Global – the nation’s first fully online public university with accredited degree programs – just as the COVID-19 pandemic made innovations in online higher education imperative. She was appointed president by the CSU System Board of Governors in August, having earlier served as CSU Global’s chief operating officer. Toney succeeds Becky Takeda-Tinker, who recently became chief educational innovation officer for the CSU System.

Since Toney stepped into her new role, colleges and universities across the country have continued to wrestle with ways to safely and effectively deliver coursework during the coronavirus pandemic. At more than 70 percent of campuses nationwide, the current spring semester includes at least some online instruction, according to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this group are Colorado State University in Fort Collins and CSU Pueblo; like 16 percent of U.S. campuses, they are delivering mostly in-person classes this spring, supplemented as needed with online instruction to follow health guidance.

To help a student get financial aid or help an employee be better at their job, you have to have a system. Otherwise it just turns into chaos.

— Pamela Toney

Meantime, economic upheaval during the pandemic demands new and improved skills within the U.S. workforce – so much so that “reskilling” and “upskilling” are terms used as commonly in the business sphere as “social distancing.” Self-paced online education is a critical part of preparing a future-ready workforce, according to “COVID-19: The Upskilling Imperative,” a report from Deloitte, the professional services powerhouse. The pandemic marks a turning point, when continual “digital, online, career-focused learning” will be central to success for students and employers alike, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

In this environment, CSU Global has an edge, and Toney has established expertise, said Tony Frank, chancellor of the CSU System. “Pam Toney has a unique vantage point, having served in leadership roles with CSU Global through most of its history,” Frank said. “She understands every aspect of the operation and the Global business model, which is also unique in the higher education marketplace. And she has a special passion for the learners who rely on Global to advance their education, careers, and quality of life.”

Since it was founded in 2007, CSU Global has sought to perfect the asynchronous delivery of valuable credentials and college degree programs online. The university often collaborates with employers to tailor academic offerings that help modern learners progress in their careers, while also boosting workforce and economic development.

Demand for CSU Global programs has exploded: The university had 208 students when its classes began; a dozen years later, it has conferred more than 21,000 degrees, and about 20,000 students are currently enrolled. Forty percent live in Colorado. CSU Global offers more than 50 certificates and bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, with dozens of optional specializations.

The university has accomplished all this without state funding, while paying off a startup loan early and while climbing to a No. 11 ranking among “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs,” according to U.S. News & World Report.

Unlike many students at traditional, residential universities, most attending CSU Global are working adults juggling job and family responsibilities; their average age is 35. Many CSU Global students earlier started toward degrees, left school, and later realized the necessity of postsecondary credentials for career advancement. To complete their degrees, these students need affordable, high-caliber education gained with maximum flexibility; indeed, for many students, digital modalities are a key to higher-education access, credential completion, and wage growth.

“They work, they have kids, they have a family,” Toney said of the typical CSU Global student. “And they generally have a purpose behind finishing their degree. By the time they get to us, our goal is that we are their last stop.”

Toney’s educational path reflects those of many CSU Global students: She gained an undergraduate education on a traditional campus and topped it off with advanced credentials earned online. Toney has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a master’s in psychology from Walden University, a Master of Business Administration from Colorado Technical University, and a graduate certificate in cybersecurity from CSU Global.

As her own resume attests, the ability to choose modalities helps many students flourish. “I would not be where I am today if I had not had that on-campus experience,” she said. “But not everyone needs that.”

Toney started working in higher education to help students navigate financial aid, something that mystified and intrigued her as a student. To do financial aid well means matching individual student needs with complex systems of private, philanthropic, governmental, and institutional finance.

“Psychology just fascinates me, but it does not necessarily align with my career path,” Toney said. Then she reconsidered for a beat. “But it really does,” she added. “It helps me understand how to work with all types of people and how to drive things through.”

Woman in red in front of the CSU Global logo

Pamela Toney was recently appointed president of CSU Global, the nation’s first fully online nonprofit university established by state law. Pictured at headquarters in Aurora, Toney is the second president to lead the 13-year-old university, which focuses on the advanced learning needs of working adults.

Toney joined CSU Global in 2013 as director of financial aid and senior director of student financial services. She was promoted six times through the university’s leadership ranks before becoming president. Now, Toney is tackling some of online higher education’s broadest challenges, from IT systems to teaching effectiveness.

Global thinking, it turns out, means thinking big and small, she said. All with clear purpose: “Trying to organize chaos for others and helping people be the best they can be.”

Her outlook is exactly what convinced the CSU System Board of Governors they had the right leader in Toney. “When hiring any president, the Board of Governors looks for leaders with experience and vision, but also leaders who have a deep respect for and understanding of the culture, character, and mission of our individual campuses and how they support and strengthen one another,” said Nancy Tuor, board chair. “President Toney has a deep connection to Global and the students it serves, and she’s also a strong partner with Pueblo, Fort Collins, and the System in finding innovative ways to serve all of Colorado.”

So what now? The answer is both big and small. Some characteristics of the CSU Global student are changing. Students still need work experience to be admitted, but younger students who want the flexibility of a Global education are applying in greater numbers. For Toney, becoming president at this time means implementing what Takeda-Tinker, her predecessor, calls “CSU Global 2.0.”

“Being an online institution, we are a tech company as well,” Takeda-Tinker said. “That means tearing down and rebuilding. Knowing that we are always moving and adapting to the environment, we knew there was an opportunity to serve Colorado and industry and beyond.”

Global focuses on adapting its technology and classes to ever-more sophisticated students. This entails creating a multitude of easily navigated choices: mobile, desktop, and immersive technologies and different paths for mastering information. All learning outcomes are aligned with ever-shifting industry needs, and students may customize their experiences at critical points in degree attainment.

Being an online institution, we are a tech company as well. That means tearing down and rebuilding. Knowing that we are always moving and adapting to the environment, we knew there was an opportunity to serve Colorado and industry and beyond.

— Becky Takeda-Tinker

That level of personalization is borne of systems, both digital and physical, but also classically human, Toney said. “Community building is also important,” she said. “If we can engage with our community and really support it from that service perspective, we are going to be successful.”

In fact, “community” was the first word Toney mentioned when asked about her vision. Last year, CSU Global moved into a building owned by Aurora Public Schools. The facility is a physical symbol of a public education partnership that benefits Colorado students and employees. Through the partnership, APS staff and graduates benefit from tuition discounts, scholarships, and professional development.

Partnerships with Colorado school districts are fairly new, but collaborating has always been part of CSU Global’s DNA. For example, industry partners – numbering some 3,500 in all – have shaped the university’s central mission of offering career-relevant credentials for working adults. These affiliations yield a variety of benefits, such as tuition-sharing and enrollment discounts. Industry partners also help develop curricula that build key workforce skills. Why is this significant? “Not only do students have this certification or degree, but their credentials already have workplace alignment that is recognized and valued by employers,” Toney said.

The new president fully understands what students juggle. On top of her leadership responsibilities, she is a mother of two and an active member of her community north of Denver – a bio similar to those of many Global students. “She understands how important this work is,” Takeda-Tinker said.

All it takes to motivate Toney is to recall something incredibly specific – herself as a student – and to remember where her education led her. “Education was my way to learning how to better myself and find a different path in life,” Toney said. Shining a light on that path, “and being able to help people, is really what I do.”