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Departing Provost Cheryl Misak: A Profile

Provost Cheryl Misak is known at U of T to be “an incredibly supportive and intellectually generous mentor,” according to her former graduate student, Danielle Bromwich.

Renowned philosopher Cheryl Misak is completing her term as provost – the chief academic and budget officer – of the University of Toronto, a role she has held since 2009.

“Cheryl Misak has made a huge contribution to the University as provost”, says President David Naylor. “I’ve thought at times that Cheryl was somehow genetically engineered for academic leadership. She has a dazzling analytical mind, a natural affinity for very smart students and great scholarship, and a profound understanding of the mission of the modern university. Package that up with vision, empathy, comfort with delegation, and boundless energy – and it’s no wonder that so much was accomplished on Cheryl’s watch.”

Misak’s latest book, The American Pragmatists, was published by Oxford University Press in April. This fall, she will teach a graduate course at New York University in the history of philosophy.

“Philosophy is about listening to reason and that’s a good thing in an administrator,” says fellow philosopher Professor Donald Ainslie, principal of U of T’s University College. “Too often administrators aren’t susceptible to argument – they’ve already decided what they’re going to do– but Cheryl has an open mind and can be persuaded. That’s a powerful capacity.”

That Misak’s expertise includes pragmatism, a philosophical position that links experience with truth, is also important, says Ainslie. He tells a story about a colleague who taught at the University of Lethbridge years ago.

Needing help “figuring something out”, the colleague was given the name of an undergraduate student with a reputation for solving problems: Cheryl Misak. Ten years later, that same colleague was teaching at Oxford University and again needed help. This time, it was a graduate student everyone recommended: Cheryl Misak.

One of Misak’s great gifts is her capacity to understand what’s important in a system and what’s not, says Ainslie.

“She has a really deep understanding of the systems that make the University what it is and the important elements that will take it to the next level. Her use of the budget model, for example, has been brilliant,” Ainslie says. “She’s used it to address some longstanding, historic inequities across the three campuses…and to help units do the things the University cares about, like connecting undergraduate students with graduate students and strengthening the first-year experience and the 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. 

“The University of Toronto 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 that gem for the country and make sure that that research strength is everywhere in our teaching mission, both with respect to graduate students and undergraduate students,” Misak says. “If you go to other universities in Canada you will find Canada Research Chairs, for instance, not doing any or much undergraduate teaching, whereas our finest researchers want to be in the classroom and we have increased those opportunities for them.”

Misak began her U of T career teaching philosophy at the Mississauga campus.

“I never set out to be an administrator,” Misak says. “I was a very happy being a jobbing philosopher. But I was asked to become chair of the philosophy department and 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. Misak moved to the downtown campus to take the helm of the Philosophy department but returned to Mississauga when asked to become dean of that campus.

“I cared deeply about the Mississauga campus and this was just at the point when it was departmentalizing,” Misak says. “It had three big amorphous departments of humanities, social sciences, and sciences but now that the campus had become the size of a stand-alone university it was time to have more finely individuated departments.

“It was a really important moment…and I was keen to take on that challenge.”

Two years later, Misak became acting vice-president and principal of the UTM campus.

“The Campus Police reported to me and Facilities and Services reported to me - it opened up a whole new world,” Misak says. “It turns out administrative jobs are deeply interesting.”

Misak, who received a BA from the University of Lethbridge, an MA from Columbia University, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford, is also a widely respected researcher with more than 40 scholarly articles. She has published and edited books with Oxford University Press, Routledge, and Cambridge University Press.

Misak is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has been a Humboldt Fellow at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, a Visiting Fellow of St. John's College Cambridge, and a Rhodes Scholar.

And she plays a devastating game of tennis.

“Cheryl is very competitive,” says Ainslie. “She wants U of T to win. She wants U of T to get the best students, she wants U of T faculty to get the awards and she wants the University to be recognized as not just the best in Canada but one of the world’s leaders.”

Keeping U of T on its trajectory of excellence isn’t easy, Misak says.

“It’s remained one of the best universities in the world even though other universities are so much better funded than we are. People don’t really understand that we run almost on fumes, and yet we run one of the top research institutions in the world.”

With less funding to bring to its research partnerships, U of T must leverage its research excellence, says Misak. U of T’s involvement in CUSP, the New York City-based Centre for Urban Science and Progress, is one example.

“CUSP is focussed on both research and education and it will be a wonderful opportunity for our students to get to spend some time in NYC and learn about the problems facing that city as well as the problems facing Toronto, London, Bombay, etc.” Misak says. “We need to continue to make these very selective, very high-end partnerships at the University. But we have very little money to put into these partnerships – so what we put into them is our enormous research strength.”

Along with pragmatism, Misak’s own research focuses on the theory of truth, moral and political philosophy and, more recently, the philosophy of medicine.

In 1998 Misak almost died from a catastrophic infection that landed her in the emergency room of St. Michael’s Hospital with acute respiratory distress syndrome. She spent weeks in a drug-induced coma before recovering.

In the language of the ER, her kind of case is known as a “big save”.

Over the next decade, Misak analyzed and researched her experience. She served as a patient representative on St. Michael’s critical care committee and published a series of articles for medical journals, emerging as a powerful voice on myriad aspects of her ICU experience, from the phenomenon known as ICU delirium, to the physical challenges of rehabilitation, to end-of-life issues.

“I have had the wonderful good fortune to speak to thousands and thousands of critical care people.” Misak says. “I usually end these talks by saying that what I’m suggesting is a terribly unfair burden to place on their shoulders, because the circumstances involved in critical care medicine are incredibly complex morally. Their primary job is to haul people away from death’s door, but they also have to make beastly and important ethical judgments.

“But I think it’s important to articulate just how complicated these issues are and that’s where being a philosopher comes in handy. That’s what we do: we unwind complexities and we take things that one might have thought not complex, and we show that they are in fact complex.”

Outgoing President David Naylor notes that Misak has at the same time a keen ability to bring clarity and focus to the most elaborate problems. “Cheryl makes hard things look simple. She cuts through all the noise and complexity to get at the academic and strategic core of any issue. She also has a wicked sense of humour and contagious positivity – two attributes that lifted everyone’s spirits whenever there was some crisis or conflict.”

Danielle Bromwich, assistant professor of Bioethics and Metaethics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, recalls her time as Misak’s graduate student.

“Cheryl’s an incredibly supportive and intellectually generous mentor,” says Bromwich. “In 2004, Cheryl offered me the chance to co-teach an upper level Pragmatism course with her at UTM. Despite being excited, I was more than a little terrified by the prospect of teaching with one of the leading scholars in the field. But Cheryl believed in me. And she has this amazing ability to make daunting tasks seem not only manageable, but fun.

“Despite her schedule, she spent countless hours… giving me the kind of calm and constructive feedback that boosted my confidence in the classroom. It’s because of Cheryl’s mentoring that I won the Martha Lile Love teaching award that year, and developed a love of teaching.”

Misak’s entire family has invested in U of T: her husband is a professor of Law and Philosophy; her son just finished his undergrad in Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs and is off to Oxford to do an MPhil in Comparative Politics; her daughter is going into her third year, studying Immunology. Both children are graduates of the Vic One program.

“I believe that the University of Toronto gives an unparalleled undergraduate education because we have stellar faculty members and our undergraduates have such wonderful access to them,” Misak says. “So despite the fact that it probably wasn’t easy for them as the provost’s kids – although they have a different last name – I strongly encouraged them to come to the University of Toronto because I knew they would have a great education. And indeed they have had a great education.”