Gonzaga University was among the most recent stops on Greg Mortenson’s perpetual book tour, but it was certainly not the only Northwest institution to pay thousands of dollars to hear the author of “Three Cups of Tea” speak.
Still, officials at three area universities contacted Tuesday don’t regret the expenditure.
A report Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” cast doubt on the veracity of Mortenson’s books and the financial management of the Central Asia Institute, the Montana-based charity he co-founded and directs to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Fellow author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer emerged as Mortenson’s principal accuser with a 75-page online essay entitled, “Three Cups of Deceit.”
Krakauer, a former contributor to the Central Asia Institute, rebuts key elements of Mortenson’s books in which he describes taking a wrong turn descending K2 and ends up in the village of Korphe, Pakistan, where he later returns to fulfill his promise to build a school.
“It’s a compelling creation myth, one that (Mortenson) has repeated in thousands of public appearances and media interviews,” Krakauer wrote. “The problem is, it’s precisely that: a myth.”
First published in 2006, there are more than 5 million copies of “Three Cups of Tea” in print, and the paperback has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 219 weeks. Mortenson’s “Stones Into Schools” also is a best-seller.
In an interview with Outdoor Magazine, Mortenson responded to the charges by saying his co-writer on “Three Cups of Tea,” David Oliver Relin, took literary license and that there was a “compression of events” concerning Korphe.
But even more damning than the accusation that Mortenson fabricated events, including that he was kidnapped by the Taliban, are Krakauer’s claims that the Bozeman writer promoted his memoirs using funds from the institute, which received no share of book royalties.
On March 28, Mortenson told a sold-out audience at Gonzaga that CAI has built 92 schools in Pakistan and 86 in Afghanistan.
Krakauer says that estimate is vastly inflated and that many of the schools that do exist have never been used for lack of trained teachers.
“No one, not even Mortenson, knows exactly how many CAI projects exist as ghost schools, or simply never existed in the first place because he has repeatedly subverted efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built,” Krakauer wrote.
Mortensen charges upwards of $30,000 to speak, and Gonzaga University, where he was the inaugural lecturer in the Presidential Series, was no exception, according to a university spokeswoman.
GU President Thayne McCulloh was in meetings on Tuesday and unavailable to comment, but spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn said the university has no regrets in inviting Mortenson, who spoke at a sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center.
In a statement on its website, the university said it was aware of the accusations against Mortenson but, “We are and remain inspired by the positive impact that Mr. Mortenson’s efforts have had for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we celebrate all those who work to create a better life for others.”
On Jan. 26, Mortenson spoke at Beasley Coliseum at Washington State University in Pullman, where “Stones Into Schools” was selected as the common reading text for incoming freshmen.
WSU spokesman Darin Watkins said “Stones” was a jumping-off point for a broader discussion about Central Asia. He did not know late Tuesday how much the university had paid Mortenson.
“The lectures were well-attended and students enjoyed his comments,” Watkins said, adding that the accusations against Mortenson were “disappointing, but we still found great value in the discussion.”
Besides, he said, Mortenson’s book also was required reading for servicemen and women headed to Afghanistan, “So we weren’t the only ones.”
Claudia Wohlfeil, satellite operations manager for the University of Idaho Bookstore, offered a more vigorous defense of Mortenson, who spoke on campus in April 2008 along with co-author Relin.
While in Moscow, Idaho, the two raised about $50,000 in donations from the community, said Wohlfeil, who helped organize the event.
“There are three sides to every story,” she said, adding that in this case they are “Krakauer’s, Mortenson’s and somewhere in the middle.”
Wohlfeil called the “60 Minutes” attempt to interview Mortenson in Atlanta “unprofessional” and, “really sad because he is doing good work.”
She said she defends Mortenson because “he felt called to do something bigger than himself and do it for other people.”