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Regent Downer's time on Board coming to an end

BY BILL COONEY | APRIL 29, 2015 5:00 AM

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Robert Downer arrived in Iowa City around 50 years ago as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, where he has set his roots and resided since.

He said it was during his time as UI student body president that he first started to get interested in serving on the state Board of Regents. Now, the Iowa City lawyer’s 12-year stint as a regent will come to an end Thursday.

“I got interested in being on the Board of Regents as a student because I thought it was the best way I could help the university,” Downer said. “I saw a lot of what I thought were inequalities among the schools, for example: Iowa State had its library built in the ’20s. Iowa didn’t have one built until the ’50s.”

Iowa State University’s Parks Library was originally built in 1925, while UI’s Main Library was completed in 1951.

However, Downer said that serving as a regent hasn’t been the same as he envisioned as a young UI law student.

“My time on the board has been very interesting,” Downer said. “It’s much different than I thought it would be when I was appointed.”

Downer said he has a special place in his heart for Iowa City and the UI, but as a regent he couldn’t favor one university over the other.

“I always say that I’m neutral except for four hours every fall,” Downer said, referring to the Iowa-Iowa State football game.

Having to remain neutral on the board has not stopped Downer from supporting Hawkeye athletics; Downer has been a basketball season-ticket holder for 50 years and football season-ticket holder for 47.

Downer is also heavily involved at the UI College of Law, said Gail Agrawal, the law school’s dean.

“He’s spoken to students many times,” Agrawal said. “He’s always been willing to speak with outgoing law students. I would say that Bob brings a lot of wisdom and problem solving with him. I really think he could give good advice on almost anything.”

Doug True, former University of Iowa senior vice president and treasurer, said Downer is very involved in the growth of Iowa City and the university campus.

“It’s almost impossible to get anything done in this town without bumping into him,” True said.

Being a lawyer, Downer was well-suited for his time on the board, True said.

“He understood how the process should work from being a lawyer,” he said. “He may not be an expert in everything, but he understands the basics, and he’s fair, that’s what’s important for a regent.”

Downer said the biggest accomplishment of his career is the growth being seen not just at the UI but at ISU and the University of Northern Iowa as well.

“After World War II, many states poured money into buildings for their regent universities. Iowa did not, and I’m not sure we’ve caught up yet,” he said. “While I was on the board, we pushed very hard for a number of building projects not just at Iowa, but at all regent schools across the state.

“I get a great feeling when I see students working out at the [Campus Recreation & Wellness Center] here because it’s those kinds projects we worked to move forward.”

Downer said he is disappointed with what he sees as the regents encouraging an atmosphere of competition among Iowa’s universities with their proposed new funding model, which would shift funds from the UI to ISU and UNI.

“I will say that the old funding definitely needed to be revisited,” Downer said. “But the process moved entirely too rapidly with too little study done. Someone born when the old funding model was passed would be collecting Social Security now, so I think we could have spent a few more months going over it.”

The proposed model still effectively requires state legislative approval. Downer was the only regent to vote against it last year, but Regent Hannah Walsh — a UI student whose term is also coming to an end on Thursday — recently said she regrets voting in favor.

Even though his time on the board is coming to an end, Downer said he plans to continue working in his law office on South Linn Street.

“I don’t have any hobbies really. I would say that working is my biggest hobby,” Downer said. “I’ll be spending more time with my kids and grandkids of course, but I plan to work as long as I’m able to.”

For Downer, the 12-year stint as a regent was all part of the plan. 

In her 1961 Profile of Downer for The Daily Iowan, Barbara Haardt wrote, “now taking his first semester exams in the College of Law, Downer has not decided on a field of specialty but plans to work in Iowa.”


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