A Provost's Philosophy

Dr. Cheryl Misak (BA '83) never intended to go into academia. When she began her education at the University of Lethbridge, Misak's goal was to become a lawyer.

As fate would have it (if fate does in fact exist – a question Misak has certainly pondered and discussed at length with hundreds of students over the course of her long and illustrious career) Philosophy 1000 was the only course that fit a gap in her schedule that first semester. You could say the rest is history, but in Misak's case, it's far more appropriate to ask whether certain things in life are just meant to be.

Taking a look at Misak's resumé, which brims with esteemed accomplishments, culminating in her current position as vice-president and provost at the University of Toronto, it's easy to buy into the notion that things have a way of working out the way they should. That first course in philosophy that Misak added to her schedule simply out of practicality, set her life on an extraordinarily successful and interesting trajectory that she might not otherwise have pursued.

"I was immediately taken by it," Misak says of philosophy. "I agonized over what to do – it seemed that degrees in philosophy wouldn't lead to much of a career, but eventually I took the plunge."

Dr. Cheryl Misak (BA '83)
Dr. Cheryl Misak (BA '83) was the 2009 recipient of the Alumnus of the Year award.

Misak followed her passion, earning a BA in Philosophy with great distinction, and the coveted Faculty of Arts and Science Gold Medal to go along with it. While she had her sights set on a Rhodes Scholarship that year, it was at Columbia University that Misak earned an MA. Even so, Oxford was never off the radar. Misak reapplied for the Rhodes Scholarship while in New York, was accepted and went on to earn her PhD in England.

Since then, it's been one step after the other for Misak. She's been a lecturer at Oxford, graduate co-ordinator and assistant professor at Queen's, and then steadily moved up the ranks at U of T, advancing from professor to chair to dean to VP and principal – all the way to the top of the institution as vice-president and provost. It's an impressive succession that even Misak herself sometimes has trouble recognizing as her own career.

"It's a constant object of amazement to me," Misak says. "I had to be convinced to do each successive job. Each time I moved on, I found I was enjoying it more and more. People kept asking me to do things, and I just kept saying yes."

While the position of vice-president and provost at U of T is more than a full-time job, Misak makes a point of keeping her hand in research and teaching. She is currently working on research for a book titled The American Pragmatists – a subject matter very much in line with work Misak started while still an undergrad at the U of L. It is fittingly full circle – especially for a philosophy buff.

"Philosophy is about working through problems, getting to the bottom of things and trying to come to an understanding about concepts such as truth, knowledge, justice and the good. Ask a question about an old problem, and you're bound to learn something, if not new, then at least important."

The University of Lethbridge Alumni Association Distinguished Alumnus of the Year award recognizes individuals for exceptional professional achievements, academic excellence or contributions to society.