In Casale Monferrato — a small city of 35,000 on the banks of the river Po in Northern Italy — sits Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny’s abandoned cement factory, a building responsible for the asbestos-related deaths of thousands over the past 20 years.
Assunta Prato, 64, came to Casale with her late husband 40 years ago. The newlyweds had little to do with the factory — she taught in the local school, he was a local official — until Prato’s husband died in 1996 from mesothelioma, a rare and untreatable chest cancer typically caused by asbestos contamination. Prato was left to raise her three teenage children alone, and in the years since her husband’s death, she has worked to bring asbestos awareness to her local community. Casale residents continue to die from asbestos-related illnesses at the rate of one person per week, Prato said. Although the factory shut down, asbestos continues to blow over the town, irreversibly polluting the environment.
In 1996, Yale awarded Schmidheiny an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree for creating “an attainable vision of a global economy based on sustainable, ecologically sound development.” In 2012, an Italian court convicted Schmidheiny of negligence that led to the asbestos-related deaths of over 2,000 people in Italy.
After three years of outside pressure from Yale alumni and asbestos victims, a panel of lawyers and medical professors met at Yale Law School on Wednesday to discuss whether the University should revoke Schmidheiny’s degree. If Yale does, it would be the first time an honorary degree has been revoked in University history.
DEGREES OF DEGREE
At the core of Schmidheiny’s case is the broader question of whether the University should revoke any degree, and under what circumstances. If Yale set a precedent for revoking a degree, would that open the door to a flood of objections to other honorary degrees? The Schmidheiny case comes amid recent debate over honorary degrees given to now-controversial figures, namely Bill Cosby, who was given an honorary doctorate in 2003.
From her home in Casale, Prato condemned Schmidheiny’s degree in an interview with the News, adding that the longer his degree remains unrevoked, the more injurious the symbol is to victims and survivors like her.
“It was an offense to us … cruelly making fun of us. We think it’s absolutely absurd,” Prato said, speaking through a translator. “We are pleased … [that] Yale will be discussing this.”
Prato is not alone in her condemnation. In May 2015, 60 alumni signed a petition demanding that the University revoke the degree. Thirty-four mayors of affected Italian towns wrote to University President Peter Salovey making the same request. Victims groups have taken out at least three full-page ads in the News over the past two years. Members of the Asbestos Victims’ Families Association (AFEVA) have lobbied the University through private and open letters to revoke the degree.
Only the Yale Corporation has the power to revoke an honorary degree. New Haven lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen, who represents AFEVA, said none of the top Yale administrators notified of and invited to the panel participated on Wednesday.
“Yale does not believe that the Italian legal proceedings provided cause to reconsider the judgment made by the [honorary degree] committee in 1996,” University spokesman Tom Conroy told the News. “The decision to award this degree was made by a committee that considered Mr. Schmidheiny’s full record as a philanthropist who used his wealth to fund sustainable development … a businessman who inherited and dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern.”
At Wednesday’s panel, Italian translator Vicky Franzinetti said there are two sides to any honorary degree: the institution that grants it and the significance it has to other people.
Prato is part of AFEVA, a group founded by Casale residents and factory workers, which has declared that there is no honor in Schmidheiny’s actions.
“People felt in Italy that a man like that should not be honored for what he had done to the environment,” professor of philosophy and international affairs Thomas Pogge said at Wednesday’s panel. However, Pogge added that this case raises important questions about how Yale bestows honorary degrees. “Should every honorary degree be up for grabs?” he asked.
Meisenkothen noted that Schmidheiny’s case comes at a time when the issue of correcting historical wrongs is more prevalent than ever on campus. Prominent figures like former vice president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, are being scrutinized and their honorific status at the University is being questioned. Meisenkothen said Schmidheiny’s degree is no different.
“These issues are all related to some extent, and all speak to the institution’s willingness or resistance to change,” he said.
Mail correspondence from the past several years between Meisenkothen and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews presented at the panel reiterated the same message: Yale will not revoke the honorary degree. Meisenkothen said these letters were a “robo-response” and that he is disappointed Yale will not reconsider the degree.
“They basically washed their hands of the situation,” Meisenkothen said.
When Yale presented the award to Schmidheiny in 1996, he had a reputation as a forward-thinking businessman with an eye to helping the environment. That same year, one of Schmidheiny’s companies made multiple donations to Yale, although Yale did not disclose the size of these gifts.
In 1992, he made connections with environmental activists in countries like Brazil, reinventing himself as an environmentally conscious businessman, said Barry Castleman, an American asbestos expert who spoke at the Law School discussion. Schmidheiny also helped fund an environmental conference at Yale in 1995.
The Law School panel debated whether Schmidheiny’s contributions to various environmental protection groups outweigh the harm he caused. Meisenkothen said that Schmidheiny tried to “green-wash his image, and Yale unwittingly helped him do it.”
Schmidheiny’s company, Eternit Genova, built four factories in Northern Italy during the 1970s and ’80s. Estimates of the deaths caused by the asbestos used in these factories number over 3,000, and Prato said Casale alone has lost 2,200 people from asbestos-related illnesses.
After being sentenced to 18 years in prison in February 2012, Schmidheiny appealed the decision, and in November 2014, a higher court overruled the sentence on the grounds that the statute of limitations for the crime had expired. His lawyers argued that Schmidheiny had no knowledge of the deaths and was not involved in the factory operations that polluted the nearby towns.
“It’s easy to say now that in the early 1970s we were aware of the health risks; in fact we knew nothing,” Schmidheiny wrote in 2014, according to a slide shown at the panel by Martin Cherniack ’70, a professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut and an asbestos researcher.
The court’s ruling did not find Schmidheiny innocent, but only dismissed the sentence, Castleman said. Castleman was also a witness for the prosecution.
Castleman explained how Schmidheiny was involved in a complex system of minimizing the apparent danger of asbestos, and knew as early as 1976 of asbestos’ health risks. Factory managers were given instructions in how to reduce paranoia and worry in communities affected by asbestos, he added.
Schmidheiny sank deeper into controversy last year when, after Amazon released an e-book about the trial called “The Great Trial,” Schmidheiny’s lawyers successfully blocked the book’s publication in Europe with a threatening letter to the publishers. Schmidheiny’s lawyers threatened to sue the small domestic publishing company after they released an English translation of the book online. The publisher said it was not prepared to take on the lawsuit. Schmidheiny’s lawyers objected to “The Great Trial,” claiming in their letter to the publisher that the book presented him as “a ruthless industrialist who values his own profit higher than the security and life of his employees.”
The e-book — co-authored by an Italian university researcher and one of the public prosecutors in the asbestos trial — was taken down only two months after it was published online. But on Wednesday, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization released the English version of “The Great Trial” online.
FORGIVE AND FORGET?
Despite Schmidheiny’s connection to her husband’s death, Prato said she harbors no ill will against him.
“As far as Schmidheiny is concerned, I do not wish to feel hate or revenge. Asbestos has taken my husband’s life, and I didn’t want it to ruin my life with all these negative thoughts,” she said. “We don’t seek revenge, we seek justice.”
Castleman said he doubts Schmidheiny has genuinely had a change of heart. His biography shows no “epiphany” or realization of the tragedy he helped cause, he added, nor has Schmidheiny made any kind of heartfelt apology to the people of Casale.
Prato said she hopes Schmidheiny, instead of pretending to be an environmentalist, will be true to his word and work to eradicate asbestos from Casale. Prato’s husband, shortly before his death, had worked to decontaminate the town and factory. The factory has been turned into a “Victim’s Park,” yet many of the houses in the town remain tainted, and complete decontamination will take a long time, Franzinetti said.
Schmidheiny did not pay for the clean up of Casale, but instead offered around $45,000 to each affected family on the condition that they agree never to sue him. Around 100 families accepted this offer.
“As [my husband] committed his time and his energy to the decontamination, I felt it was my moral duty to continue with that work,” Prato said. These days, Prato dreams that Casale may one day “the first asbestos-free city of the world.”