In the past week, allegations have surfaced accusing best-selling author Greg Mortenson of fabricating parts of his book “Three Cups of Tea” and mismanaging funds intended for his nonprofit organization. This controversy is making the University confront two difficult questions: first, whether the book should still be used for next year’s first-year reading experience; and second, whether Mortenson should be brought to campus to speak in the Bucknell Forum as originally planned.
In regard to the first question, we do not think that the controversy undermines the value of “Three Cups of Tea” as a first-year reading experience, and we suspect that, if anything, it might even enhance it. Is the value of a book necessarily fundamentally changed by the fact that it may not be strictly true? Must controversies regarding a book’s author necessarily taint the message of a book? We’re not so sure; we suspect that what the reader gets out of the book might be what really matters.
The controversy surrounding “Three Cups of Tea” will open up whole new possibilities for topics of discussion among first-year students. Discussions can still center on the actual content of the book, but now they can include additional intriguing topics such as ethics, morality, and academic dishonesty. Even the topic of whether the book should have been used can now be a legitimate point of discussion. Furthermore, the scandal might compel students to pay more attention to the book than they might have otherwise. Even if their ultimate judgments are critical, they can be taught how to make these criticisms in academically useful ways. At any rate, controversy often makes a book more interesting, so we should take advantage of this opportunity to capture student interest.
The question of whether to have Mortenson speak in the Bucknell Forum is more complicated because doing so would be not merely using his book, but directly honoring him. It would implicitly link him with the renowned and highly-respected speakers who have appeared at the Bucknell Forum in the past, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jody Williams, Twyla Tharp, Niall Ferguson, and most recently Brian Greene. As a University, we must carefully consider whether we actually want to do that.
It’s not as if the Forum hasn’t also welcomed controversial speakers in the past. For example, it allowed Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak in September 2008 despite the accusations of plagiarism that she faced; it also allowed Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak in March 2009 despite widespread debates about the way in which she characterized Muslims. However, these weren’t among the University’s most positive moments, so we can’t recommend that they consciously be repeated. Furthermore, if—as was demonstrated last fall—first-years can’t even maintain respect for someone like Howard Gardner, forcing them to attend a talk by Mortenson may be asking for trouble.
Still, Mortenson’s message is positive and powerful, even if he may not live up to it himself. We don’t think that the message should be completely forgotten because of largely unproven allegations. But we do hope that the University holds him up to the same standards as it would any other major speaker.