Remembering James Downey for his instrumental role in co-operative education at University of Waterloo

Friday, April 29, 2022

By: Namish Modi (he/him)

During his time at Waterloo, James (Jim) Downey was instrumental to the University’s world-renowned co-operative education program as the founding director of the Waterloo Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative education (WatCACE).

James (Jim) Downey, founding director of the Waterloo Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education (WatCACE)

He recently passed away at the age of 82, but his legacy remains.

Downey made his way to Waterloo and served as president of the University Waterloo from 1993 to 1999. He continued to be an important influence at the University after his time as President. He returned to the classroom as a professor of English and soon took on administrative posts. One of those posts included reviewing and renewing Waterloos role in co-operative education and led to Downey becoming the founding director of WatCACE.

Jims support of co-operative education at Waterloo continues to serve our students today, and the Universitys solid position as a global leader in co-op is a direct result of his leadership and vision, says university President and Vice-Chancellor, Vivek Goel. Indeed, universities across Canada and beyond have benefitted from his intellect and his dedication to students and their learning.

Downey, and a team of researchers, established WatCACE in 2002. The goal was to provide “research on co-op education and improve both its educational value and administrative effectiveness,” according to a review report published in 2008 by the department.

In 2020, the University rebranded WatCACE as the Work-Learn Institute (WxL). Today, the institute continues to leverage data from Waterloo’s co-op program and conduct research to determine trends in work-integrated learning (WIL).

Through WatCACE, Downey helped renew Waterloo as a global leader in work-integrated learning (WIL). The concept and its execution helped to strengthen Waterloo’s place as a leader in co-operative education and to influence the shape of university education.

“Dr. Downey’s work laying the foundation for WatCACE was critical to establishing Waterloo as a top research centre in the realm of work-integrated learning,” according to Anne Fannon, current Director of WxL. “Through this foundation, the WxL embarks on groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind research which helps us understand the future of work.”

Remembering Jim as “friendly” and “gregarious”

Ken McLaughlin, distinguished professor emeritus, historian, and friend of Downey’s, was part of the founding committee for WatCACE. In a recent interview on the University’s Beyond the Bulletin podcast, McLaughlin told host Pamela Smyth that Downey would consult widely before making decisions.

“He wasn't just making a peremptory decision. He knew everybody on campus, and he was very friendly and very gregarious,” McLaughlin says. Although he and Downey would argue sometimes, they would always work through it. “The nice thing about arguing with Jim was he didn't hold it as a grudge,” says McLaughlin. “He would come back the next day, and we would be right back all over again.”

Although they would argue occasionally, McLaughlin recognized Downey’s dedication to the work.

“What he wanted to do was to make co-op better,” he says. “And we had been going at this point for getting onto 50 years since co-op first started. Most of the time the idea was to be able to figure out how to relate jobs and class(es)— but in terms of student choices, not in terms of the quality that was delivered either in the classroom or in the employment area.”

Downey’s reputation helped get WatCACE off the ground

Pat Rowe, Professor Emerita of psychology, worked as professor for 39 years and was the first female dean at the University. Although she retired from teaching in 2002, she continued to work as an associate with WatCACE. According to Rowe, WatCACE would not have existed without Downey.

Rowe says the stature and reputation Downey earned from being president was monumental in providing the prestige needed to help get WatCACE started. Faculty members may not have had the same pull or influence as Downey.

Maureen Drysdale, a psychology professor at St. Jerome’s University, was a research associate for WatCACE and worked with Downey to establish the centre.

He (Downey) was instrumental in putting Waterloo on the global map for research into co-op and work-integrated learning. WatCACE has an impact on research on the international level as it allowed communication with others across the globe.

Maureen Drysdale (she/her),
psychology professor at St. Jerome’s University,
research associate for WatCACE

While establishing themselves as experts in co-op research, the WatCACE team utilized conferences and networking to help other institutions establish their own research centres.

Drysdale believes that Downey’s ability to network and connect with people was an important strength. “He has such a large network of people, and he was so well-respected that when he reaches (out) or someone working under him reaches out, that respect is seen. His ability to connect with people and share his vision; he shared it with such passion, and he pulled people in because of that.”

On a personal level, Drysdale credits her work with Downey at WatCACE as an important moment in her career.

“It was he and Pat combined that certainly had an impact on my career trajectory,” says Drysdale. “Without his guidance and mentoring and being a part of WatCACE, I’m not sure my career would have taken the direction it did. He’s so supportive, and his ability to really listen to what you were saying and to offer such constructive feedback was very good.”

Learn more about Downey's legacy in his obituary.