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'Tea' Author in Hot Water

April 19, 2011

Greg Mortenson’s books about school-building and education in Afghanistan and Pakistan have made him a regular presence on college campuses, with his book Three Cups of Tea picked as a “common reading” book for many freshmen and the author promoting his particular brand of humanitarianism and pacifism in dozens of speeches a year.

But questions raised Sunday by CBS’s “60 Minutes” about the veracity of his story and the management of a foundation that grew from his work have some of the campuses re-evaluating their plans to recognize or feature Mortenson and his books.

Mortenson emerged in a big way in 2007, after the paperback publication of his book Three Cups of Tea, which told the story of Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2, the village that rescued him, and how he was inspired to start building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He followed that with Stones into Schools, which went on to detail the work of his foundation, the Central Asia Institute, constructing more schools and building connections in the region.

But “60 Minutes” alleged that one of the central and most dramatic components of Mortenson’s story -- that after failing to reach the peak of K2 in Pakistan, Mortenson stumbled into the village of Korphe, where villagers fed and cared for him and he promised to build them a school in return -- was not true. CBS cites sources saying that Mortenson did not visit Korphe until almost a year after his climb of K2.

In an interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, published Monday, Mortenson stood by his story, but said that “the time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.” “60 Minutes” also questioned another memorable part of Mortenson’s story -- that he was kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. The news program also investigated questions about the foundation's use of funds, which spent $1.7 million on "book-related expenses" to help Mortenson promote his books, while taking in no income from the books and little income from Mortenson's speaking engagements.

In recent tax returns, the institute claims to have built 141 schools. "60 Minutes" said its reporters visited about 30 schools and found some of them to be empty, built by other people, or not receiving support.

On Monday, Mortenson’s publisher, Viking, said it would review the "60 Minutes" charges about the author's story.

Officials at several colleges that have plans to honor or highlight Mortenson and his work said they would await the results of that and other investigations before deciding what to do. But those that have him slated to receive honors at spring commencements don’t have much time.

The University of California at San Francisco planned on giving Mortenson its UCSF Medal – the equivalent of an honorary degree -- on April 26. UCSF officials said they are hoping to learn more about the allegations, but because Mortenson is undergoing emergency surgery this week, he would not be able to accept the award this year anyway.

Mortenson is also scheduled to speak at Fontbonne University on May 21 and receive an honorary degree. A spokeswoman for the university said that the situation was “under review,” but she did not have a definitive answer on what the university would do.

The University of Louisville was also put in a bind by the allegations. The university announced Thursday that Mortenson would receive the Grawemeyer Award in Education, one of five awards given out annually in various subjects. The award comes with a $100,000 prize.

Allan Dittmer, the award’s director, said that the university is waiting to see what develops as others investigate, but that he worries about what the charges could mean for the award’s reputation. “We’re hoping that we can get through this and that whatever decision we make won’t hurt us one way or the other,” Dittmer said.

Mortenson is not scheduled to receive the award until Sept. 23, so Dittmer said Louisville has time to see the results of other investigations before making a decision.

The allegations could also have reverberations on campuses that have been featuring Mortenson’s work. According to the National Association of Scholars, which tracks summer reading books, 12 colleges selected Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea for freshmen who entered college in fall 2010.

Vanderbilt University is among them. Frank Wcislo, who serves as dean of the Commons, the university’s freshman community, said the book provided great fodder for discussion but that the charges leveled against it are serious enough to undermine it if true.

He added that, regardless of the outcome of investigations into the veracity of Mortenson’s work, the incident has provided the opportunity for further discussion about the book for next year.

“There are all sorts of questions around the charges,” he said. “What amounts to plagiarism, for example. We have an ongoing discussion on our campus about the honor code, and that’s a whole area of discussion that this can branch into.”

 

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