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Profile: Bob Downer became first regent from Iowa City

Advocated for building, funding, cooperation

Iowa Regent Bob Downer sits in his office at the law firm Meardon, Sueppel & Downer in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. Downer, a regent for the past 12 years, will step down from the board in April. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Iowa Regent Bob Downer sits in his office at the law firm Meardon, Sueppel & Downer in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. Downer, a regent for the past 12 years, will step down from the board in April. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — In the 1970s, a push was on to get a student on Iowa’s Board of Regents. If not a student, at least a young adult. And budding community servant and education activist Bob Downer, then 33 years old, had a “strong interest.”

But University of Iowa lobbyist Max Hawkins, with a cigar between his teeth and years of legislative experience under his belt, told him, “No Iowa Citians need apply,” according to Downer.

Hawkins, Downer said, believed the “town and gown” relationship between UI and Iowa City was too tight.

Downer went for it anyway but wasn’t chosen. Still, he didn’t understand why his appointment was such a long shot. Past board members had included representatives from Ames and Cedar Falls, home to the state’s other public universities.

And 30 years later, in 2003, Downer again expressed interest in serving on the board that oversees Iowa’s public universities and two special schools. The board still had not had a regent from Iowa City — outside student representatives, which had become mandatory by that time.

But in spring 2003, at new UI President David Skorton’s inauguration, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack told Downer of his plans to make him a regent.

“I still find irony in the fact that the first non-student representative from Johnson County to the Board of Regents was a Republican,” Downer said.

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Downer was reappointed in 2009 after his first six-year term. But after spending a dozen years on the board, the 75-year-old Iowa City lawyer is about to make his exit.

He said he’s healthy and has a lot he still wants to do in his career, community and personal life.

He officially will leave the board April 30, as will Ruth Harkin, who has served since 2005, and UI student Hannah Walsh, the most recent student representative.

Looking back on his time with the board, Downer told The Gazette some of his proudest work involved advocating for building projects on the three campuses — including the McLeod Center at UNI.

“I have been actively involved in getting buildings constructed at all three universities,” he said, stressing the importance of having a multipurpose arena at UNI due to its strong teaching and coaching curriculum. “Some feel that looking at that as a significant accomplishment doesn’t speak too well of me. But I felt it was of great importance.”

Downer said his interest in the Board of Regents started with his advocacy for campus building projects as an undergraduate UI student from 1957 to 1961.

“The public universities had gone through a dry spell in the area of new buildings,” he said. “The Iowa institutions were losing ground.”

Those efforts resulted in the signing of a bill supporting more funding for capital projects, Downer said, and that launched his interest in educational leadership. He also had a father and grandfather serve as school board members, and Downer was UI student body president in 1960.

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In addition to his advocacy for building projects, Downer said he tried during his tenure as a regent to improve the universities’ relations with Iowa’s community colleges, push for adequate funding and become well-versed in the major issues facing all three state institutions — not just UI.

He does not support a new funding model approved by the board last year that would tie a majority of state appropriations to resident enrollment. Downer said he’s concerned it devalues graduate and professional education and ramps up potentially damaging competition among higher education institutions in the state.

“I am strenuously opposed to the rivalry it’s setting up among the universities, the community colleges and the privates,” he said.

But, Downer added, that will be an issue for the next board to decide. Gov. Terry Branstad has recommended three new regents, who have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. None of them are from Iowa City, but Downer said he doesn’t think his appointment will be the first and last from Johnson County.

“I don’t think I’ve left such a bad impression that the whole area would be tainted,” he said.

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