James DowneyThe University of Waterloo's fourth president and vice-chancellor, recognized for his contributions to post-secondary education around the world, has died. James Downey was 82.

Downey, remembered by many for his loyalty, integrity, and wit, led the University from April 1993 to May 1999. It was a time of dramatic changes for the post-secondary sector by two consecutive Ontario governments led by Premier Bob Rae and then by Premier Mike Harris. Through it all, Downey believed it was important to maintain the integrity of all parts of the University in the face of funding cuts and tuition increases.

“Without Jim Downey’s inspired and sensitive leadership during a period with many constraints, Waterloo would have been a lesser place, divided and disgruntled,” said Ken McLaughlin, historian and distinguished professor emeritus. “His approach allowed the University to emerge from the deficits, special early retirements and challenges to rebound dramatically under the next president, David Johnston.”

Downey looked back on his term not only as a period of coping with financial pressures, but one of achievement as he took pride in the accomplishments of students and employees. He believed it was significant that people thought highly and well of the University during this time.

"The past six years have been a slice, particularly the first four years," Downey said at one of several events celebrating his tenure as president. "They were times that tested our mettle, times of loss. What we didn't lose was our nerve, our sense of balance. We didn't turn on each other, and we came through it with distinction."

During his time as Waterloo’s president and vice-chancellor, Downey also served terms as chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

After completing his presidency, Downey returned to the classroom as a professor of English at Waterloo. Almost immediately, he took on a number of administrative posts. His decision to review and renew Waterloo’s role in co-operative education was critical to the continued success of Waterloo. Downey was the founding director of the Waterloo Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education (WatCACE), which helped to renew and further develop co-operative education as a defining characteristic of Waterloo. It strengthened the institution’s place as a progressive leader in this area and influenced the shape of university education.

Downey became an education consultant for the Government of Ontario, and advised several Canadian and international universities on issues of governance and management. He was the founding president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. His annual seminar for new university presidents was sponsored by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. In 2005, he was appointed chair of the Board of Governors of the Royal Military College of Canada.

“The University and indeed Canada’s post-secondary sector lost one of its champions with the sad passing of Jim Downey,” said Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo. "I extend my sincere condolences to his family and friends, and to the many members of our campus community who had the privilege of working with him.”

"Jim’s support of co-operative education at Waterloo continues to serve our students today, and the University’s solid position as a global leader in co-op is a direct result of his leadership and vision. Indeed, universities across Canada and beyond have benefitted from his intellect and his dedication to students and their learning.”

In 2018, Downey donated his private papers to the Special Collections and Archives at UWaterloo’s Dana Porter Library. They include materials that are historical, autobiographical and biographical, touching on life in his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We are fortunate to have worked closely with Jim over the years,” said Nick Richbell, head of Special Collections & Archives at Waterloo. “The records we received document a long and varied professional life. From the meticulous commonplace books he kept to the speeches he gave as president of the University of New Brunswick as well as Waterloo, we are proud to house Jim’s legacy for future generations to come.”

Downey began his career at Carleton University, where, he held a series of academic and administrative posts, including chair of the Department of English, dean of the Faculty of Arts, vice-president academic, and interim president. Before joining Waterloo, Downey was president of the University of New Brunswick from 1980 to 1990. At the same time, he served terms as president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, chair of the Association of Atlantic Universities, and chair of the Corporate-Higher Education Forum. From 1990 to 1993, he was special advisor to the premier of New Brunswick, special advisor to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and co-chair of New Brunswick’s Commission on Excellence in Education. The latter published two significant reports that guided educational reform in that province.

Downey was born in Winterton, Newfoundland and Labrador in 1939. He graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland. As a Rothermere Fellow, he attended the University of London, where he earned a PhD in English literature. 

“I will remember him as someone with down-to-earth values, a strong belief in a commitment and loyalty to those with whom he worked, and he had an unrivaled sense of humour,” McLaughlin said. “At his home one evening, a major donor remarked that Jim had lost his Newfoundland accent. Without missing a beat, he fell back into it and said, ‘Oh no, I have not lost it. I’m just not using it.’ The University’s endowment increased by a significant amount.”

He received numerous awards and honours. Downey became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1996. In 2000, the Association of Commonwealth Universities awarded Downey the Symons Medal for outstanding service to higher education in the Commonwealth. In 2003, he received the David C. Smith Award from the Council of Ontario Universities for his contributions to universities and public policy in Canada. He holds honorary degrees from six universities in Canada and two in the United States.

There will be a funeral service for the family. The University plans to hold a memorial on campus at a later date.

Ken McLaughlin, historian and distinguished professor emeritus, discusses the impact James Downey made in his career. Listen to the interview on the Beyond the Bulletin podcast.