Former speaker accused of fabricating information

Last spring, humanitarian figure and co-author of “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortensen, spoke for the Year of Social Change to a Shafer Auditorium so packed that an additional video stream was needed in the Campus Center lobby. He stayed on campus until 2 a.m. signing copies of his books for students.

But Mortensen’s achievements have recently come under question amid various allegations regarding the veracity of his books’ personal accounts and the legitimacy of financing practices used by his non-profit organization, the Central Asian Institute. An April 17 segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes” detailed many accusations advanced in a recently published exposé by Jon Krakauer, in an e-book titled “Three Cups of Deceit.” Krakauer was once a generous donor to CAI and fellow mountain climber with Mortenson.

Among other things, Krakauer takes aim at the opening story told in “Three Cups of Tea,” which describes how a failed attempt at climbing to the summit of K2 led an injured Mortenson by chance to a remote village at which he befriended the villagers and children who nursed him to health.

According to Krakauer’s sources, this story is fabricated. He alleges that Mortensen, after simply descending the mountain, did not visit the village for the first time until at least a year later.

Jinnie Templin, ’11, who helped bring Mortensen to campus last year as a Student Ambassador on the steering committee for the Year of Social Change, admits she had some reservations upon meeting him.

“I was at first a little shocked when I heard the claims, but at the same time it didn’t come as a huge surprise,” said Templin.

“Three Cups of Tea” was written in third person by Mortensen’s co-author David Oliver Relin, and Templin said this made her suspicious of the possibility of fabrication.

“There is obviously a difference between the type of person he is and the type of writing in his book.  His book is written as an articulate and passionate account, but in person, he is a very shy man,” Templin said. “If you have somebody else write your life story, there is more room for error and misinterpretation.”

Templin also expressed dissatisfaction with the attitude of Mortensen’s publicist, who treated her with little respect despite being employed by such a prominent philanthropist.

“I had a sour taste in my mouth from the things his publicist was requesting,” Templin said. Among these requests were Perrier brand water, a town car for transportation and first class airfare.

“Although he was very humble, his publicist was surprisingly bossy,” Templin said.

Professors of communication arts Ishida Sinha Roy and Emily Yochim, co-organizers of the Year of Social Change, said they both felt upset and surprised, yet they stressed the need to understand Mortensen’s achievements as admirable.

“I was very confused because [the allegations] didn’t coincide with the figure we all had in our minds,” said Sinha Roy.  “While we all share the deep sadness, this is a teaching moment for ethical citizenship.”

Yochim stressed the fact that the jury is still not out on these claims.

“It’s important to foreground that these are still only allegations,” said Yochim.  “We know that he cares very deeply about his cause.”

Mortensen acquired the reputation of one of the most notable philanthropists of the last decade, a title which he must defend as formal investigations begin. Besides building dozens of schools that educate otherwise neglected girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has been nominated more than once for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“He has genuine intentions,” Sinha Roy said.  “And while he must be held accountable, that should not take away from what he has done.”