If you drop in to see Tonya Wagner, Viterbo University’s new dean of the College of Business, Leadership and Ethics, chances are you will be offered a cup of coffee. Really good coffee. Wagner grew up in the Seattle area, the birthplace of Starbucks, with a passion for “bean juice.”
In high school, she loved her job at a drive-thru espresso stand, and after college, she managed a hip coffee shop. How hip? Josh Tillman (known in the music world as Father John Misty) worked there, and her regular customers included acclaimed playwright August Wilson and Ishmael Butler of the hip hop trio Digable Planets.
“The thing I loved about the coffee business was community building, bringing people together in a space for a shared experience,” Wagner said.
In addition to coffee, one thing that has propelled Wagner through life is a hunger to know more. “I’m an inherently curious person. I’m endlessly curious, and I’ve never been afraid to take risks,” she said.
As dean, Wagner oversees the university’s undergraduate and graduate business programs, the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program, the Center for Professional Development, and the D.B. Reinhart Center for Ethics in Leadership.
“Being Viterbo’s business school dean is the perfect culmination of my love of being in higher education as well as being a change agent in business,” Wagner said.
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Wagner graduated from the University of Washington in 2001, earning bachelor’s degrees in comparative religion and international studies. She started out as a pre-med major, but after taking a religion class she changed course, drawn to religious studies for a greater understanding of the world.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in theological studies from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In this interdisciplinary degree, she focused on the historical and sociological trends in religion placing special emphasis on organizations and organizational structures.
After seminary, she worked for almost five years in the Seattle area, first as marketing and communications director for a coffee company, then working for a marketing and advertising agency.
In Seattle, she met and married Sparta native Troy Wagner, and it was his Wisconsin roots that eventually brought her here, along with their son, Jude, now 17.
She came to the La Crosse area in March 2014, working for Western Technical College as a grant manager for a year before becoming associate dean in Western’s business division.
On top of the new job as associate dean, she also began work at the University of Wisconsin-Stout on a doctoral degree in career and technical education, which she received in 2019 just as she was completing a year as Western’s dean of general studies and liberal arts.
While she was getting her higher education career rolling, Wagner also was dealing with her husband’s bout with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, which claimed his life in 2018.
With her doctoral degree completed, Wagner returned to Washington state in November 2019 to take on the role of dean of workforce education at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham.
Coming back to Wisconsin means being close to the family of her husband, Alma Center native Jed Durni, as well as her own parents, who had previously moved from Washington to Wisconsin. That proximity means a lot considering Wagner and her husband have a toddler son, Leo, and an infant daughter, Lucy.
On her path to academic leadership positions, Wagner also had plenty of experience teaching college classes, something she wishes she could still do. “I miss students,” she said. “I really love engaging with students over critical ideas. I’ve never taught a class where I didn’t learn more than I taught.”
With her experience in marketing and branding, Wagner has given some thought to what her own brand is: “I’m positive, energetic and creative — somebody who will say the hard things.”
As Wagner sees it, the brand for Viterbo’s College of Business, Leadership and Ethics involves business leadership to serve the greater good, whether that’s within a company, a community or a country, and helping students develop in all aspects of their lives.
“One of the biggest attractions of taking on this role at Viterbo was doing work to do good,” Wagner said.
“I’m an inherently curious person. I’m endlessly curious, and I’ve never been afraid to take risks.”
Tonya Wagner, Viterbo’s dean of the College of Business, Leadership and Ethics