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From Grandma’s Basement to Leading SUNY Oswego

SUNY Oswego’s new officer-in-charge has had a passion for learning from a very young age

By Steve Yablonski • Photos by chuck wainwright

Mary C. Toale’s love of academics has taken her from her grandmother’s basement to her current position as the officer-in-charge at SUNY Oswego.

The 49-year-old was appointed following the retirement of long-serving President Deborah F. Stanley. Her appointment was effective Jan. 1. She will serve while the college searches for a permanent president.

Stanley was appointed interim chancellor of the State University of New York.

“My passion for learning and teaching began when I first played the school teacher in my grandma’s basement with my siblings and cousins,” Toale recalled. “I taught every subject. My ‘students’ then were not necessarily interested in really learning. But we had a lot of fun!”

“I have been fortunate to have the opportunities to continue to learn in structured and unstructured environments,” she added.

Her commitment to teaching and learning began early and led to her undergraduate degree in secondary mathematics education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her interest in pursuing graduate degrees led to her master’s degree in communication theory and research and doctoral degree in instructional communication at West Virginia University.

Toale joined SUNY Oswego in August 2014 “to create and launch the strategic communication graduate program.” She began as an associate professor, department of communication studies, and was tenured in 2016.

Praised by former president

“Mary has continuously stepped in to lead areas of the college when needed and is the ideal officer-in-charge candidate. She brings a wealth of higher education leadership, knowledge and experience, and is committed to student success, equity and opportunity. I am confident she will do a fantastic job leading the college during this time of transition,” Stanley said of Toale’s appointment.

The new officer in charge has been in higher education for more than 25 years, having spent the past 20 years in academia at SUNY Oswego, West Virginia Wesleyan College and Baldwin Wallace University, where she also served in leadership roles.

“While at Baldwin Wallace University, I served the campus and community in various leadership roles and became deeply involved with a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide affordable access to organic fruits and vegetables in urban food deserts,” she explained.

Her mom is from West Virginia, and her dad is from Buffalo. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio, with her sisters, and “was the first person in my family to attend college,” she said.

“In addition to receiving a Pell grant, I earned scholarships to attend West Virginia Wesleyan College, including soccer, softball, leadership and academic scholarships,” she said. “I earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary mathematics education and then, after graduation, I taught, coached soccer and worked in alternative settings. Then I pursued my graduate degrees in communication at West Virginia University.”

Her affiliations include: New York State Economic Development Council, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Association of Colleges & Universities and Eastern Communication Association.

Throughout her career, she has earned much recognition for her efforts.

In 2016, the Eastern Communication Association named Toale a Distinguished Teaching Fellow in recognition of her excellence in teaching.

In 2017, ECA named her a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award for her service to the field of communication. In 2007, Toale received the Baldwin Wallace University Strosacker Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Toale has published scholarly work as well as presented numerous scholarly and pedagogical topics at state, regional and national conferences. She has served on editorial review boards for state, regional and national peer-reviewed scholarly journals.

Mary Toale joined SUNY Oswego in August 2014 “to create and launch the strategic communication graduate program.” She began as an associate professor, department of communication studies, and was tenured in 2016.

She also has served as a communication consultant for local news outlets and working professionals.

Toale served as one of 30 faculty on the National Communication Association’s Lumina Grant project to create learning outcomes in communication and served as a member of the National Faculty Advisory Board for Lambda Pi Eta.

As the officer in charge at SUNY Oswego, Toale represents the university with local, state and federal officials, economic development agencies and businesses and industries.

Among her other duties, she said, are reporting to the SUNY Chancellor and SUNY board of trustees and she is responsible for all university operations.

Toale also supervises the college’s four vice presidents and works with the foundation board, the college council, accrediting agencies and internal and external constituents to further the strategic goals of the institution. She is also engaged in development activities, alumni relations and fundraising.

In her free time she said she “enjoys reading a wide swath of books, articles and research.” Her other hobbies include puzzles and genealogy. And, she is learning how to “cook and bake interesting recipes.”

She is also using Duolingo, an app for learning different languages (

“I have not mastered any languages on there yet. I am continuing to learn Spanish, French and Norwegian,” she said.

She also dabbles in photography, “especially of my three dachshunds.”

Toale’s canine companions include: Clementine Suzanne (Clemmie), a black and tan long-haired dachshund mix. She is 17 years old. Luna Lovegood, a short-haired brindle dachshund. She is 2 years old. And, George Waylon, a short-hair English cream dachshund. He is 2 years old.

Playing A vital role

“Higher education plays a vital role in providing opportunities for learning, skill development and social mobility as well as for gaining an understanding of our shared responsibility to our communities,” she said.

“SUNY Oswego’s abiding commitment to access and opportunity drives us to deliver for those who seek the personal and professional fulfillment that a college degree offers over the course of their lives,” she continued.

“Furthermore, we believe that ensuring inclusion of those from widely diverse backgrounds and experiences invigorates our learning environment and serves to produce a better-informed, creative and productive citizenry for all.”

Everyone at SUNY Oswego is working together for the betterment of all the students.

“Our shared commitment to our students’ well-being is rooted in empowerment and equity. The recent establishment of SUNY Oswego’s Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice reinforces this notion and will serve to create and maintain an inclusive, equitable community of students and scholars where all stakeholders thrive and experience belonging,” she explained.

Toale partnered with the former president and the college’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, to create the institute.

COVID-19 concerns remain

In the fall of 2021, Toale was named the college’s campus safety monitor. Currently, Victoria Furlong, vice president for administration and finance, is now serving as the campus safety monitor. She is responsible for the coordination and oversight of COVID-19 operations and policies on campus and serves as the campus liaison with the SUNY system administration.

“The pandemic is still a big concern,” Toale said. “We continue to follow the science to make decisions for our campus community with health and safety at the forefront of our decision making.”

What does Toale like the most about SUNY Oswego?

“The people: students, alumni, faculty, staff and administrators,” she said.

“We are all here for the same reason: to help our students succeed.”

Improving enrollment numbers

Enrollment has been declining at the college, as well as at other colleges around the country. Last fall’s enrollment at Oswego took a big dip, mostly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student enrollment at many colleges fell last fall, according to a report by The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That prompted some to worry whether the declines experienced during the pandemic could become an enduring trend.

However, at SUNY Oswego, it appears things are turning around. Things have been trending upward, Toale noted.

“Our approach to enrollment includes all facets of the university: recruitment and retention of undergraduate, graduate, residential, commuter, online, Syracuse campus, international and adult learners,” she said. “We have seen a steady increase in applications. They are up 26% from Central New York prospective students (Oswego and the adjoining counties) and running significantly ahead of last year in deposited students for fall 2022.”

An interest in programs

The college is seeing continued interest in its highly reputable academic programs such as broadcasting and mass communication; engineering (electrical/computer and software engineering); business administration; meteorology and zoology, the officer in charge pointed out.

“We plan to continue to capitalize on our strengths and offerings in Oswego’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; School of Business; School of Communication, Media and the Arts; and School of Education,” she said.

“On the graduate side, we are seeing programs that are growing due to the possible connection to how folks are experiencing the pandemic. For example, biomedical and health informatics, and mental health counseling.

Our MBA program is highly sought-after and our online MBA is the highest-ranked public school offering in New York state and among the nation’s top online master of business administration programs, according to U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review and Poets & Quants,” she said. “We are also seeing an increase in those motivated to go back to school to get their initial certification in teaching.”

Oswego forward

When asked what she hopes to accomplish in her tenure, she replied: “I want to keep SUNY Oswego moving forward to ensure we are meeting the needs of our students so they can succeed. We have a great team and I know they will continue to bring their best ideas to the table as we carve our future together.”

SUNY Oswego’s presidential search committee, led by college council chairman James McMahon, has begun a national search for a permanent president. It is working with SUNY and Academic Search to actively network and recruit prospective candidates.

Has Toale thought about throwing her hat in the ring for the president’s post at SUNY Oswego?

“No,” she replied.

When a new president is named, she said she will return to the role of deputy to the president.