Controversy surrounds 'Three Cups of Tea'

By Olesya Minina


Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling book and the University’s first-year reading experience selection “Three Cups of Tea,” has been accused of partly fabricating his inspiring memoir as well as mismanaging his non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). This institute builds schools and promotes education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The controversy has made University administrators, faculty, and students question whether the book should remain in place as the first-year reading experience as well as whether Mortenson should still be brought to campus.

On Sunday evening, “60 Minutes” aired a story making allegations about the credibility of Mortenson and “Three Cups of Tea.” The book recounts his descent from K2, the second largest mountain in the world, after a failed climb. Mortenson, weak and exhausted, came to Korphe, a small northeast Pakistan village, where he was nursed back to health. After witnessing the kindness of the villagers and the barley existent schooling systems, Mortenson promised to return and build schools in some of the most isolated areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Recent reports from The New York Times, The Bozeman Chronicle and a CBS report suggest that Mortenson’s book and charity could be misleading. Some of the moving stories in “Three Cups of Tea” are argued to be partly false. The CBS report, citing sources, stated that porters that accompanied Mortenson in 1993 said he did not actually visit Korphe until a year after the descent, falsifying a central story in the book.

Reports have also surfaced that Mortenson has been using the charity for personal interests, stating the CAI is spending millions to advertise Mortenson’s books. CAI’s public 990 tax form shows that in 2009 the charity had $14 million in income. It spent $3.9 million on schools overseas and $4.6 million on travel and guest lectures promoting the book. “60 Minutes” also reported that it checked on schools CAI claims to have built and found “some of them were empty, built by somebody else or simply didn’t exist at all. Many of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.”

Mortenson has issued a statement saying he stands by all the information his book as well as the value of the CAI and the work and help they provide. His publisher, Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, is staying silent and standing by their client.

“Recent allegations against Mr. Mortenson have sparked a controversy on whether or not the book should still be the first-year reading experience,” Provost Mick Smyer said. “An advisory committee is taking the matter very seriously, considering the pros and the cons, and is going to decide in the next week or two.”

“Three Cups of Tea” was chosen as the first-year reading experience for this fall and copies have been offered to all new students as well as faculty. Mortenson is also scheduled to speak on campus this October.

“Like many on campus and beyond, I am deeply concerned about the questions recent media reports raise about the credibility of ”Three Cups of Tea’ and the range of activities funded by this charity through Mr. Mortenson’s work,” University President John Bravman said. “While all reports continue to underscore the meaningful difference he has made in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we all know these reports raise troubling ethical questions, especially for universities, where academic integrity is a fundamental value. The book selection committee and the Bucknell Forum Task Force have met already to examine these issues carefully, and I trust them to determine whether we should continue with this book as our first-year reading experience focus and whether Mr. Mortenson should come to campus as a forum guest.”

Bravman and the Operations and Management Group will also be debating the impact of the claims against Mortenson.

Mortenson’s goal was to promote peace through education in conflict-prone areas, which prompted him to co-found CAI, whose mission is to promote and provide education, especially for girls. The Institute claims to have established 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, partially or fully supported 687 teachers, and educated over 58,000 students.

“[I was] disturbed and disappointed that the author could have possibly abused such an inspiring story for personal gain which also invalidates other non-fiction writers who have used the power of the written word honestly,” Madison Stevens ’14 said.

Smyer stated that he is “torn between the value of the message in the book, and the value of the messenger.”

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