The recent controversy over the work of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, highlights the risks universities take in inviting famous people to campus and raises the question: Is it worth it?
Until recently, Mortenson was among the most popular guest speakers on campuses nationwide. He rose to fame by campaigning on behalf of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has built schools that he says not only give them an education they would otherwise not receive but also help reduce the influence of terrorists. Then CBS's "60 Minutes" and other media outlets charged, among other allegations, that he had exaggerated the number of schools he had built and violated IRS laws as he accrued millions of dollars in speaking fees and book sales telling his story.
My university was among those that had already scheduled Mortenson to speak when the controversy broke, and the task force that had invited him, which I chair, was among those that rescinded the invitation. Such decisions put a fine point on the issues colleges face time and again about who qualifies as an appropriate guest. The question is made even more potent in the midst of commencement season, as visiting speakers of every kind address thousands of graduates at a time. As ephemeral as speaking events are, these choices are flashpoints for debates about university values.
Here at Bucknell, as at many campuses, we host speakers several times a year in a range of public events, including commencement, an annual literary arts series and a national speaker series, for which Mortenson had been scheduled to speak.
In 20 years of being involved in such choices at various institutions, I have found that three kinds of speakers are easy for colleges to select: scholars, serious authors and performing artists – such as Elaine Pagels, John Edgar Wideman, Edward Albee and Twyla Tharp. To oversimplify nuanced perspectives, whether we are traditionalists who believe universities should provide a model of intellectual thought or generalists who believe universities should engage the popular culture, we typically agree that universities should be forums for diverse ideas. The issue becomes which visitors are worth paying extra to bring their different ideas to campus. These three types of speakers are the most readily accepted because they use the vocabulary of the liberal arts mission, of the intellect, or of the arts, all of which are inarguably part of a well-educated life.
Now the choices get messier, as the experience with Mortenson shows, because campus speakers often are perceived as a shorthand for what we want our university to be.
First we have so-called public intellectuals, known for their authorship of widely read serious nonfiction, such as historian David McCullough, finance writer Niall Ferguson and physicist Brian Greene. It is no surprise they are popular on campuses, since besides drawing crowds they use many of the methods of scholarship, if not the language. They thus are tolerable to academic traditionalists, since a popular intellect is better than no intellect all, while generalists are thrilled. Someone like Elie Wiesel -- author, public intellectual, and Noble Laureate humanitarian -- hits the sweet spot where (almost) everyone agrees.
Second are celebrities: talk-show hosts, television journalists, actors, comedians -- the TV and movie stars. Here the lines of distinction grow sharper. Outside schools of drama or journalism, traditionalists often see celebrities’ language as superficial, while generalists have a harder time explaining their suitability to a university’s mission. In either case, the language of celebrities isn’t typically perceived as a language of academe, let alone the language, in part because they bear the stigma of popular entertainment as shallow, fairly or not.
Celebrities, however, can be hard for campuses to resist, because students will turn out to see them, and some will ask what is the point of having speakers on a campus if students don’t attend. So students frequently put celebrities first on speaker lists, forcing a choice: Can traditionalists trust that the particular celebrity will be thoughtful enough for them to accept, or is the speaker so purely a celebrity that generalists won’t fight for them? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most desired celebrity speakers because their wit is seen as erudite. Either way, those who extend campus invites to celebrities often crouch as they do, especially if it’s for commencement, with its singular importance to university culture.
This leaves the final two categories, which are separated by just one factor: publication. The easiest of the two to debate, because the lines are so clearly drawn, is the accomplished professional, known for doing something in the “real world” beyond authorship, the arts or entertainment. Traditionalists often don’t see the point, while generalists see them as exemplars of action. Politicians fall in this category, and force the question into the simmering realm of ideology. Business executives fit the bill nicely, though, especially if a market-driven philosophy doesn’t clash with campus views too much.
The final and most complicated category of all, then, is the published professional, which happens to be Mortenson’s category. We’ve had our share here: former South African president F.W. de Klerk, peace activist Jody Williams, and, at this year’s commencement, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. To stand apart from the merely accomplished professional, the published professional authors at least one book, earning special credit in the written language that is academe’s prime currency. While traditionalists debate the merits of the book, generalists have greater firepower for their view.
But in entering this special terrain, published professionals also doubly expose themselves to credibility gaps, as Mortenson’s story shows. He became such a sought-after campus speaker because his book made him so famous that students would show up in droves to hear him, almost as if he were a celebrity. How enticing: real accomplishment, authorship and a guaranteed audience to boot.
With the media reports, all that is suspect. But the central problem they raise for campuses isn’t that his nonprofit may have done less good than he claims or that he may have skirted tax obligations. By even his critics’ accounts, after all, he has helped many children, and neither his books nor his speaking contracts claim to fund his nonprofit.
The core dilemma is that he became an especially sought-after campus speaker because of his book’s success. His attractiveness as a published professional visitor came to hinge not on the fact that he’s a great speaker, humanitarian or trailblazing school builder, but on the fact that he presented himself in writing as doing it all for children. If the media reports are true, though, he novelized the children’s story for his own gain. On a core principle, traditionalists and generalists agree: In the language of a university, intellectual honesty is paramount. Not even celebrities get a pass.
In this commencement season, Mortenson’s problems also aren’t his alone; they’re a problem for all public intellectuals, celebrities and professionals. It would not be surprising if everyone, traditionalists and generalists alike, wonders with new intensity during this year’s commencement speeches why universities need such guests. The values debate has a new lightning rod.
Pete Mackey is vice president for communications at Bucknell University.