VANCOUVER – University of British Columbia president Santa Ono has issued an apology for the school’s decision to cancel a planned speech by former Vancouver Olympic CEO John Furlong.
Ono said in a statement Tuesday he “deeply regrets” the university’s choice, which was made without his knowledge or the knowledge of its board of governors. UBC’s 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,” Ono said.
“There is also no question that he deserved better in UBC’s handling of this matter.”
The university removed Furlong as keynote speaker from a February fundraising event for student athletes last month, after UBC graduate Glynnis Kirchmeier circulated an open letter critical of him.
But the decision to pull Furlong — and replace him with Ono as speaker — was met with an online backlash. Some social media users who identified themselves as long-time supporters of the university threatened to stop donating to UBC.
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, Robinson lost her own defamation suit against Furlong, 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 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,” 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.”
Ono did not explain in his statement who was responsible for making the decision to remove Furlong. But he said UBC made the decision in good faith, albeit without proper consideration of its impact on 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,” Ono said.
“In this case, we have no one to blame but ourselves and I will be working with the leadership team on ways to ensure we do better in the future.”
Ono added that the university “wishes to be clear that our event sponsor had no role in this decision and remains supportive of the event.”
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 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 Ono’s apology. Kirchmeier said it appeared the university cancelled Furlong’s speech to avoid controversy, but now that the cancellation itself has caused controversy, administrators are going back 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.”