July 19, 2018 | ° F

'Three Cups of Tea' allegations shock U. honors program

The School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program is closely following the "60 Minutes'" investigation on the validity of Greg Mortenson's memoir "Three Cups of Tea," a text that just three years ago the program had its honors students read.

"60 Minutes" began investigating both the claims made in the book as well as the management of Mortenson's nonprofit organization Central Asia Institute after complaints from former donors, staffers, charity watchdogs and Jon Krakauer, one of Mortenson's former supporters who claims the story told in the book is not completely true, according to the transcript of an interview on cbsnews.com.

School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program Assistant Dean Julio Nazario said while the book — which tells the story of Mortenson's transition from a mountain climber to an activist creating schools for girls in Pakistan — was a good start to the 2008 fall semester, the honors program was shocked to hear the accusations.

"The School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program was surprised and concerned to learn of allegations of embellishments and discrepancies in the book ‘Three Cups of Tea,'" Nazario said in an email correspondence. "The book was selected for the program's summer reading by a committee of honors students, staff and faculty, and became the take-off point for a successful ‘Honors Colloquium' in the fall 2008 semester."

Nazario said the book was chosen because of the inspiring storyline, where upon climbing K2, the world's second-highest mountain, Mortenson ran into a group of children in a Pakistani village called Korphe, writing their school lessons with sticks in the dust, according to a cbs.com article. The children then asked Mortenson to start a school, and he made a promise to do so.

"The selection was based on the engaging personal narrative presented in the book and on its powerful message, which calls the attention of the American reader to another part of the globe and to another culture," Nazario said.

Krakauer said in the interview that Mortenson did not ever stumble upon a village of 85 children in a weakened state after mountain climbing, as the book states. Krakauer said he had spoken to one of Mortenson's companions who hiked with him, and the companion said Mortenson had never heard of Korphe until a year later.

Two other companions also told "60 Minutes" that the same claims were not true, according to the article.

The interview also states that in an article Mortenson wrote for the newsletter of the American Himalayan Foundation after his descent from K2, Mortenson makes no mention of his experience in Korphe, although he did write that he hoped to build a school in another village called Khane.

As for the investigations into the management of the organization, which builds and funds the schools, one of the claims is that it has been around for 14 years, yet it has only issued one audited financial statement, according to the article.

Mortenson has denied the allegations in an email to his supporters on April 17, arguing that the report used inaccurate information, according to an article on abcnews.com. He refused an interview with Krakauer.

School of Arts and Sciences junior Ela Joshi, who read the book as a first-year student in the honors program, said she has doubts about the allegations, but added that the book could be thought of as fiction. She said while it is meant to be non-fiction, it is told in story form, similar to a fiction novel.

"When I first found out, I was really surprised because I know how successful the book has become and how inspiring he was to so many people," Joshi said. "I'm not really sure what exactly to make of it, because for someone like him to fool so many people seems improbable."

She said the book's co-author David Oliver Relin spoke to the honors students and gave a presentation with slideshows on the story.

"[‘60 Minutes'] made some serious allegations against him … but upon reading that book, the story itself is presented in a very sincere way," Joshi said. "It would be unfortunate for it to be false. Why would someone try to do that?"

While Joshi was not part of the committee that selected the book, she hopes the allegations do not reflect poorly on the honors program. The committee picked the book with good intentions and did not know of any allegations at the time, she said.

School of Arts and Sciences alumna Shital Shah, who recommended the book, said the program chose it to show incoming honors students that college is the first step to what they could do to help others both locally and internationally.

"It was showing that people can do something in the world not only in their own communities but also abroad," Shah said. "I remember I was kind of just thrown aback from the book because I was amazed at how much people can make a change."

Shah read the book before the 2008 "Honors Colloquium" and said as a person who wants to go abroad and open clinics, it gave her inspiration and a different view of the world.

"I thought it would be a really nice thing to open up people's eyes to the entire world, especially for high school students transitioning into college," Shah said.

She was shocked when she heard the allegations on "60 Minutes," because Mortenson inspired her. She said if he did not actually take part in the services he claimed, it would hurt to know that her source of motivation was a lie.

"I personally liked the book when I read it. I didn't think that it was exaggerated. It was really motivational," Shah said. "When you realize it could be false, it makes you realize how much harder it is."

Nazario said the honors program will continue to follow coverage on the issue.

"We are following the news of the allegations seriously, while recognizing the value of the author's mission to provide access to education for girls and young women," he said.

Ariel Nagi

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