In February, engineering professor David Gilbert demonstrated that an electronic glitch — rather than sticky gas pedals or poorly-designed floor mats — could cause Toyota cars to accelerate spontaneously, heightening congressional concerns that the car company had not thoroughly investigated the millions of faulty vehicles it recalled late last year.

Toyota quickly fired back by saying that the electronic failure could never happen on the road because the Southern Illinois University professor’s experiment involved substantial tampering with the wiring.

But in private conversations, the automaker went to even greater lengths to refute Gilbert’s findings and leveraged its influence as a donor to Southern Illinois University auto-tech program.

According to electronic messages obtained by the Associated Press, Toyota communicated its displeasure to school administrators, and one Toyota employee even urged the chancellor to fire Gilbert, after reminding him that the auto program had received large contributions and donated cars in previous years.

“We are taking this matter very seriously for the reasons you cite in your e-mail,” the chancellor replied, “and for our very strong desire to maintain our relationship with Toyota.”

Days after Gilbert presented his findings to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a lawyer for Toyota said company attorneys wanted to meet with the professor and university administrators to “explain our analysis of the situation and what we believe is a reasonable solution.” In e-mails, school officials scrambled to tout Toyota’s “very productive relationship” with the university.

“I didn’t really set out to take on Toyota. I set out to tell the truth, and I felt very strongly about that,” said Gilbert.

But the fallout continued. Two Toyota employees have resigned from an advisory board to the school’s auto-technology program, and the company has also withdrawn funding for two spring-break internships. Both the university and Toyota said the resignations were not punitive, but were meant to eliminate the appearance that Toyota could influence Gilbert’s studies.

“Toyota’s 25 years of support for the school isn’t going away. They aren’t going to be pulling back on any donations or taking back any cars,” university spokesman Rod Sievers told The Southern Illinoisan.

Besides scrutinizing Gilbert’s methods, Toyota supporters have criticized the professor’s financial motives. During congressional hearings, Gilbert disclosed that he was a consultant to Safety Research & Strategies Inc., which is receiving funds from lawyers with pending suits against Toyota.