Greg Mortenson, co-founder and director of the Central Asia Institute, is the author of the cornerstone text for the QU301 seminars, “Three Cups of Tea.” His story of how he stumbled to a remote Pakistani village after a failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, and promised to build them a school is inspiring to anyone who reads it.
According to CBS’s “60 Minutes” program, this is largely falsified. The station claims Mortenson is misleading donors and uses this non-profit 501(c)3 organization as a personal ATM.
The problem with both Mortenson’s book and the “60 Minutes” piece is that they pander to our basic desire for sensational stories. On the surface, this investigative piece pokes some major holes in Mortenson’s tale. “Three Cups of Tea” does the same in terms of roping in the reader with these seemingly too good to be true stories. It turns out the details may be just that.
Quinnipiac plays a role in this story, and not an insignificant one. Mortenson spoke to the student body last year and he isn’t cheap. His average speaking cost is $30,000. Every student in QU301 was supposed to buy “Three Cups of Tea.” I own a copy of his book “Stones into Schools.” The expectation when contributing to an individual who built his image, such as Mortenson has, is that money invested in his time and products will go toward his deeds for greater humanity. Not toward his private jets and promoting his personal brand.
When I asked Senior Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs Mark Thompson about the controversy during the State of the QUnion, he said he was unaware there was any problem. He said the decision to bring a speaker in is based on their prior track record and “that hindsight is 20/20.” My goal is to make sure the administration then looks back critically on its decision. In the future, perhaps more stringent investigations are pertinent.
The problem is not Mortenson making some stuff up for a buck. People do that all day, every day. The entire QU301 seminar uses “Three Cups of Tea” as a critical text. It is at the crux of every section, regardless of the topic. A student in my “Global Narratives in Film” section even asked if we had to continue reading the piece.
Ewa Callahan, assistant professor of communications and course coordinator for QU301 seminars, says no decision has been made on keeping the text in the curriculum. What really struck me from Callahan was her emphasis on student involvement in the decision process. Any decision on the future place of the book in the seminars will not come without extensive input from those with the best experience, the students, Callahan said.
A point my class and Callahan expressed was the ability to now use the situation as a learning point for students. This is an opportunity for a student to take information from the world and “be critical and make judgments yourself,” said Callahan.
It also serves as a major disappointment. Mortenson was an individual that I personally looked up to. This is a big reality check for everybody here at Quinnipiac.
Do not take things at face value. Do not read one book and make a judgment. Do not simply watch one news station or read one newspaper.
There is an increasing wealth of information in the world and it is the responsibility of the consumer to determine its worth.