University of British Columbia president Santa Ono has apologized for the school's decision to cancel a planned speech by former Vancouver Olympic chief executive officer John Furlong.
Mr. Ono said in a statement Tuesday he "deeply regrets" the university's choice, which he said was made without his knowledge or the knowledge of its board of governors. The decision-making "did not meet the standard he is eager to instill," he said.
"While some take issue with Mr. Furlong, he also has a great number of supporters in the community, and there can be no question over his record of public service and his extraordinary contributions to amateur sport, to B.C. and to Canada," Mr. Ono said.
The university removed Mr. Furlong as keynote speaker from a February fundraising event for student athletes last month, after graduate Glynnis Kirchmeier circulated an open letter critical of him.
But the decision to pull Mr. Furlong – and replace him with Mr. Ono as speaker – was met with a public backlash. Some social-media users who identified themselves as long-time supporters of the university threatened to stop donating to UBC.
Mr. Furlong has steadfastly denied allegations in a 2012 Georgia Straight newspaper article that he beat and taunted First Nations children while teaching at a northern B.C. school in 1969 and 1970.
He dropped his defamation lawsuit against journalist Laura Robinson, so the allegations have not been tested in court. However, Ms. Robinson lost her own defamation suit against Mr. Furlong in the fall of 2015, with a judge ruling her reporting constituted an attack on his character.
The RCMP has said an investigation into abuse allegations concluded without charges.
Furlong accepted Mr. Ono's apology in a statement. He said UBC had recognized that its decision caused him and his family "deep hurt and embarrassment."
"I appreciate the massive outpouring of support from friends, community and government leaders, perfect strangers and many engaged at UBC," Mr. Furlong said.
He asked donors to support the event for student athletes on Feb. 28. Furlong said he trusted that UBC would donate his full speaking fee to the fundraising effort, as he had intended to do.
"I wish the event every success and trust that this most disheartening, humiliating experience can be a tipping point for improvement and that there can be some lasting good achieved."
University spokeswoman Susan Danard said the school had received "strong feedback" from a number of people with diverse views about Mr. Furlong's planned appearance at the event.
She said the athletics department made the decision on Dec. 22 to cancel the speech, in order to "keep the event focused on its primary goal of supporting student athletes."
The athletics department did not immediately return requests for comment.
Ms. Danard said Mr. Furlong had not been invited back to speak at the February event. A review of the decision-making process is under way, and following that review, he could be contacted for future events, she said.
Mr. Ono said in his statement that the decision was made in good faith, albeit without proper consideration of its impact on Mr. Furlong or his family.
"While a modern university should neither court nor shy from controversy, our decision-making should be the result of a robust deliberative process," Mr. Ono said.
Ms. Kirchmeier, who has filed a human-rights complaint over the university's handling of campus sexual assaults, said in her open letter last month that inviting Mr. Furlong to speak was at odds with UBC's commitment to reconciliation with First Nations people.
She said in an interview that she was outraged by Mr. Ono's apology. Ms. Kirchmeier said it appeared the university cancelled Mr. …Furlong's speech to avoid controversy, but now that the cancellation has caused controversy, administrators are scrambling in the other direction.
"It's really appalling, and it really shows how careless they are about the issue of ... violence against aboriginal people. Everything they say they care about is just a fabrication."