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Yale Refuses to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny's Honorary Degree

Published by MAC on 2014-01-09
Source:, Courant

Yale Refuses to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny's Honorary Degree

Tim Povtak

7 January 2014

Prestigious Yale University, a world leader in higher education, has come under fire after rejecting a call to support victims of asbestos exposure, and bypassing the opportunity to use its influence in raising awareness to the cause.

Yale University has refused to revoke the honorary degree it presented to Switzerland billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny. He was convicted in 2012 of creating the asbestos environmental disaster that caused at least 2,000 deaths in Italy and countless more around the world.

The Ivy League school in 1996 awarded Schmidheiny, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison, the honorary degree for his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development, according to a Yale spokesperson.

Schmidheiny is also known as a philanthropist with a worldwide reach, funding ecofriendly, sustainable developments throughout North and South America.

Yale University officials recently informed the Italy-based Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association that it would not rescind the honorary degree based on his conviction in Italy, which has been upheld by an appeals court that added two more years to his sentence. Schmidheiny remains free pending a second appeal in 2014 to the country's highest court.

"The revocation of an honorary degree would be unprecedented at Yale, and we do not believe that the events subsequent to the award of the degree call into question the essential information upon which [Yale] acted," Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale Student Life vice president wrote to Christopher Meisenkothen, the Connecticut attorney representing the victims group.

Yale Alumni Could Make a Difference

Alumni of Yale University include five U.S. presidents, 19 U.S Supreme Court justices and many foreign heads of state. It is the third-oldest institution of higher learning in America, and has an endowment worth an estimated $21 billion.

"We're really very disappointed in Yale's response," Meisenkothen told the Connecticut Law Tribune. "Yale doesn't address the Italian legal proceedings, and the significant historical evidence that was revealed during the trial. I think Yale is snubbing the Italian system."

Schmidheiny was convicted of causing the asbestos environmental disaster in Casale Monferrato, a small town in northern Italy. He was the chief executive officer of Eternit, a huge corporation that included an asbestos cement plant there. Prosecutors charged that he was grossly negligent in exposing the workers and town residents to dangerous asbestos fibers, long after the toxicity of the product was known.

Exposure to asbestos has been proven to cause a number of illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, which is an aggressive cancer without a cure. An estimated 100,000 people in the world die annually from asbestos-related diseases.

Little Done to Cut Back on Asbestos in the 1970s

Schmidheiny had taken over the family business in 1976 and did little initially to change the asbestos cement operation. Workers and families in the town later developed unusually high numbers of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma.

Eternit continued its use of crocidolite asbestos well into the 80s, according to testimony at the trial. Schmidheiny's official biography says he ended his company's use of asbestos in 1986.

His conviction cited responsibility for thousands of deaths, including those working at the plant and others living in town. That caused families of asbestos victims to question his honorary degree at Yale, where even some academics are now raising the same issues.

"This is very important, new information that I think, at the very least, should be looked at very carefully by the authorities at Yale," Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy at Yale, told WNPR News in December 2013. "We have the requisite expertise to convene an excellent faculty committee that could look into this case in more depth."

Yale University Could Help the Fight

Italy and more than 50 other countries have banned asbestos and the manufacturing of asbestos products. It remains a carefully controlled, but legal product in the U.S. Still, more than 1,000 tons of asbestos are imported annually.

Many advocacy groups continue lobbying for legislation to ban it in America, but there has not been a group strong enough to make it happen. That's where Yale University, with all its political muscle, could help the fight by revoking an honorary degree for the first time.

"The scope of the harm caused the plant is so widespread that it really stands out as a particularly egregious example of the tragic legacy of asbestos," Meisenkothen said.

Donations Surface In Yale Honorary Degree Case, With Famous Connection

Dan Haar

The Courant

6 January 2014

A foundation controlled by Stephan Schmidheiny, the billionaire global environmentalist whose 1996 honorary degree from Yale University is under protest, donated money to Yale at least three times in the mid-1990s, documents show.

Those donations - in unknown amounts - are raising eyebrows among supporters of former asbestos workers in Casale Monferrato, Italy. The workers and their family members say Yale should not have feted Schmidheiny 18 years ago and should revoke the degree, now that an Italian appeals court has upheld a criminal conviction of the former industrialist and sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

At least two of the donations were to the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, then headed by Daniel C. Esty - a Yale professor now serving as Connecticut's Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner.

Schmidheiny from 1976 to 1986 controlled Swiss Eternit, a producer of asbestos-girded construction products with several plants in Italy. He exited the 80-year-old family business and dedicated his efforts and much of his fortune to advancing ecologically sustainable business methods, especially land use in Latin America - for which Yale conferred the honorary degree.

But in 2012, Schmidheiny was convicted by an Italian court of creating an environmental disaster that claimed the lives of at least 2,000 people, a ruling upheld last June by an appellate court. The main case against Schmidheiny is that he knew the dangers of asbestos and although he installed some safety measures, his company failed to warn workers and local officials.

Schmidheiny's lawyer and his spokesman said the case, which he is appealing to Italy's highest court, is a "sham" that disregards the facts.

Yale said in October, after the victims' group presented a petition calling for Yale to revoke the degree, that "there are no records of any substantial gifts to Yale" by Schmidheiny or by charities that Schmidheiny controlled. Yale did, however, describe collaborations between Schmidheiny and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where Esty's center was jointly located.

Press releases from the center show that the Avina Foundation, founded by Schmidheiny, gave "major project support" to a conference in September 1996, and again to a book published by Yale, announced in December 1997. The conference and the book were both part of Yale's two-year reform effort titled "The Next Generation Project," designed to spark a wave of creative thinking about environmental issues after the 25-year period that had been jump-started by Earth Day 1970 and the sweeping environmental laws in the United States and elsewhere.

The press releases, each citing seven or eight institutional funders, were presented to Yale last month by Christopher Meisenkothen, a New Haven lawyer who specializes in asbestos cases and represents the Eternit victims group.

Esty said Friday that he did not recall how much Avina donated, but that it was probably "in the tens of thousands of dollars," perhaps $20,000 to $50,000 for each of the projects.

Do those qualify as "substantial gifts" to Yale? Not necessarily, for an institution with an endowment in the $25 billion range, where seven-figure gifts are routine. And of course, Yale rejects any connection between donations, which are common, and honorary degrees, which are conferred in very small numbers every year.

After Meisenkothen presented the press releases to Yale, seeking more information, the university secretary responded by saying her earlier comments to him - that Yale had not received any gifts from Schmidheiny or Avina at all - were based on a search of electronic files. A later search unearthed a 1995 grant related to sustainable development in Latin America, not the grants mentioned in the press releases, "but we do not doubt that it was received," university Secretary Kimberly M. Goff-Crews wrote to Meisenkothen.

A Yale spokesman said the donations would not be considered significant, and for details referred to the letter from Goff-Crews to Meisenkothen.

It should be clear here that Esty was not involved in Yale's response about the donations and is not accused of any wrongdoing in connection with the donations.

As for Yale, it's either reassuring or disconcerting to hear that even the great university struggles with such housekeeping items as donations in the $50,000 range from major foundations, not in the Civil War era but in the 1990s.

The broader issue here is what, if anything, Yale ought to do about Stephan Schmidheiny's honorary degree now that the Italian courts have come down harshly on Schmidheiny's past. Yale might do itself a service by convening a faculty committee to look into Schmidheiny's history while the Italian supreme court hears the appeal, or at least afterward.

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