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James Downey was born in Winterton, Newfoundland in 1939. He graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and attended the University of London as a Rothermere Fellow where he earned a Ph.D. in English Literature. Downey began his career at Carleton University. There, he held a series of academic and administrative posts including Vice-President Academic and President pro tempore.
From 1980 to 1990, Downey was President of the University of New Brunswick. During that period, he also 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, Downey was Special Advisor to the Premier of New Brunswick; Special Advisor to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; and co-chair of the New Brunswick Commission on Excellence in Education, which published two reports that guided educational reform in that province.
James Downey was President of the University of Waterloo from 1993 to 1999. During his presidency of the University of Waterloo, he also served terms as Chair of the Council of Ontario Universities and Chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
After stepping down as president of the University of Waterloo, he founded and directed Canada’s first centre for the study of co-operative education, located at Waterloo; led an annual seminar for new university presidents sponsored by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; and from 2007 to 2010 was the founding president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Among Downey's awards are nine honorary degrees; the Symons Medal for outstanding service to higher education in the Commonwealth, received from the Association of Commonwealth Universities in 2000; and the David C. Smith Award for contributions to universities and public policy in Canada, received from the Council of Ontario Universities in 2003. In 1996, Downey was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. And, in 2005, he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Royal Military College of Canada.
Downey's publications include The Eighteenth Century pulpit (Oxford University Press, 1969), Fearful joy (McGill-Queen1s University Press, 1973), Schools for a new Century and to live and learn (reports of the New Brunswick Commission on Excellence in Education, 1992, 1993), and Innovation : essays by leading Canadian researchers, edited with Lois Claxton (Key Porter Books, 2002).
James Downey died in March 2022.
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Revised and updated by CGD in 2022.