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Photo of Cheryl Misak.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Misak

Path of Excellence

Outgoing provost Cheryl Misak on U of T: "We need to preserve this gem"

This fall, U of T will undergo a presidential transition. But the change in leadership extends to another senior and respected member of U of T’s executive team: Cheryl Misak recently completed her term as provost, the university’s chief academic and budget officer.

Misak began her U of T career teaching philosophy at the Mississauga campus, and later became chair of the tri-campus department of philosophy. “I never set out to be an administrator,” she says. “But I found that if you care about something and it turns out you can be effective at nurturing and making it better, it’s hugely rewarding.” That stint as chair marked the beginning of a series of administrative appointments, including dean and vice-principal, academic, U of T Mississauga. She became provost in 2009.

One of Misak’s great gifts as provost is her capacity to understand what’s important in a system, says Donald Ainslie, principal of University College and a fellow philosopher. “She has a really deep understanding of the systems that make the university what it is and the elements that will take it to the next level. Her use of the budget model, for example, has been brilliant,” he says. “She’s used it to connect undergraduates with graduate students and strengthen the first-year experience and students’ transition into U of T.”

Misak credits a strong team of vice-provosts, deans and principals with helping to ensure that all students reap the benefits of attending a top-flight research institution. “U of T is Canada’s research powerhouse. It’s the only university in Canada that consistently makes it into the top 20 in the world across a vast range of disciplines. We need to preserve this gem for the country,” she says.

Keeping U of T on this trajectory of excellence isn’t easy, though. “U of T has remained one of the best universities in the world even though others are much better funded,” she says. “People don’t really understand that we run almost on fumes.”

Misak, who received a DPhil from the University of Oxford, is a Rhodes Scholar and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. And apparently she plays a devastating game of tennis. “Cheryl is very competitive,” says Ainslie. “She wants U of T to win. She wants the university to be recognized as not just the best in Canada but one of the world’s leaders.”

Misak’s latest book, The American Pragmatists, was published in April. This fall, she is teaching a graduate course at New York University in the history of philosophy. “Cheryl Misak has made a huge contribution to the university as provost,” says President David Naylor. “She has a dazzling analytical mind and a profound understanding of the mission of the modern university.”

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