Feelings of confusion, shock and disappointment arose throughout the School community on Apr. 15 when Head of School Barbara Wagner announced via e-mail that 2011 Guerin Visiting Scholar Greg Mortenson would not be able to make his speaking engagement in Caswell Hall on Apr. 18 due to scandalous public accusations made against the activist.
Before this spring, Greg Mortenson was considered to be one of the decade’s greatest heroes. His books, Three Cups of Tea and its sequel Stones Into Schools, are deeply moving accounts of his struggle to build schools and raise educational awareness, especially for girls, in remote areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, 18 years and 171 schools later, investigators are looking into the validity and integrity of Mortenson’s stories and behavior.
“I thought it was really ironic that everyone was so excited to have him here, and just a couple days before, we found out that the person we all admired so much turned out to be lying,” Megan Fay ’12 said.
Attention was drawn to Mortenson’s suspicious activities by a shocking 60 Minutes segment that aired Apr. 17 and a lengthy exposé, Three Cups of Deceit, released on the website Byliner on Apr. 19 and written by fellow climber and early benefactor Jon Krakauer, the investigative journalist and author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air.
Both 60 Minutes and Krakauer reported that Mortenson violated nonprofit financial practices, took money from his nonprofit organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), for personal use and lied about the number of schools he has built, among other things.
“It’s frightening to think that this hero may have lied about all the good work he has done. It makes you wonder about everything else,” Bianca Landfield ’13 said.
In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson discusses being kidnapped by the Taliban and held hostage for eight days. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Mansur Khan Mahsud, one of the alleged kidnappers, said he had no idea how he was portrayed in the books, saying that he and his friends were Mortenson’s protectors during his visits, not his abductors.
According to Mortenson, he stumbled into philanthropic work after a failed attempt at climbing K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. In a weakened state, he allegedly retreated to the nearby village of Korphe, began a relationship with the inhabitants of the Karakoram mountain area and promised to build his first school.
“It’s a compelling creation myth, one that he has repeated in thousands of public appearances and media interviews. The problem is, it’s precisely that: a myth,” Krakauer said in Three Cups of Deceit.
Before the allegations, Mortenson frequently went on lecture tours to raise money for the CAI and finance the building of more schools. In addition to addressing the community at an All-School Meeting,
Mortenson was scheduled to spend time with students, make an additional presentation for alumnae and special guests and lunch with the Guerin Visiting Scholar Committee, which is comprised of girls selected based on their Guerin Prize essays.
Director of Development Betsy Stephenson received notice of Mortenson’s cancellation on the Friday before he was scheduled to speak.
“ [ T h e people at the Penguin S p e a k e r s B u r e a u ] were very straightforward on what was happening and that they had become aware of the story that would air on 60 Minutes that was critical of Greg and his work and the CAI,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson had worked for months with Wagner, Director of Admissions Jeanette Woo Chitjian, benefactor and former Marlborough parent Rick Guerin and the Guerin Visiting Scholar Committee to finalize the choice of speaker and details of the event.
Mortenson’s scheduled visit had also inspired the Pennies for Peace club to donate the proceeds of their annual fundraiser to the CAI. However, the club has now decided to donate the money raised to Japan relief efforts instead, after the recent controversy put Mortenson’s cause under fire.
The CAI, which received a donation of $100,000 from President Barack Obama’s 2008 Nobel Prize money, among other notable donors, has only been audited once in the past 14 years. Though Mortenson has claimed that he is not business savvy and was never fit to work with finances, many of the CAI’s board members are dropping out, suing and asking for donation returns.
Guerin Finalist Jackie Molina ’11, who wrote her Guerin essay on Mortenson and had planned to introduce him before he spoke during his campus visit, said she was “devastated” to hear the news of his possible fraud but still appreciates the value of Mortenson’s accomplishments
“The important thing is that there maybe have been some lies, but he has inspired a lot of people. He’s one of the biggest advocates for women’s education,” Molina said.
“I hope the dust settles,” Molina said. “I hope people can actually support him later on.”
The controversy still continues on with Mortenson’s case. Even Krakauer acknowledges that despite the accusations, Mortenson did manage to shed light on the important issue of improving education in the Middle East.
“He has become perhaps the world’s most effective spokesperson for girls’ education in developing countries, and he deserves credit for that,” said Krakauer. Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down.”