On Whose Honor?

A smoky situation.
A smoky situation. // Creative Commons

Terry Lynch never planned to take on Yale University, nor did he want to.

“I’m a blue-collar guy,” Lynch said. “When I think of Yale, I think of the President [of the United States]. I hold it in high esteem.” But he hasn’t let his regard for Yale drown out his conscience.

Last month, after reading an article that mentioned Yale’s affiliation with Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, Lynch did something that surprised even his “blue collar” self: he wrote a letter to University President Peter Salovey. It was a long letter, about three pages, and it bore the letterhead of the International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators & Asbestos Workers, a labor union of which Lynch is the International Vice President.

“I don’t go writing a letter every time I don’t agree with something,” Lynch told me. “That’s not my nature, I don’t have time to do that. But I said, you know what, I’m going to weigh in on this.”

In doing so, Lynch joined a chorus of voices calling for Yale to rescind the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters it awarded to Schmidheiny in 1996. In the 18 years since, Schmidheiny hasn’t spent a day in jail, despite have been sentenced to 18 years worth of them.

* * *

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Schmidheiny was the CEO of Eternit, a now-defunct company that was at the time one of the world’s largest producers of asbestos cement. Today, asbestos is recognized as a carcinogen — a fact that’s painfully clear in the town of Casale, Italy, where one of Eternit’s plants has been held responsible for two to three thousand asbestos-related deaths and associated environmental damage.

In 2012, Schmidheiny was convicted by an Italian court on charges related to the Casale plant, and sentenced to 16 years; in 2013, an appeals court tacked on two more.

Schmidheiny, who was tried in absentia, remains a free man so long as he doesn’t step foot on Italian soil. He maintains his innocence, denying direct involvement in the factories’ management, and has vowed “never to go to an Italian prison.” He did begin to phase out asbestos from Eternit’s operations upon becoming CEO in 1976, and in 2006, he established a compensation fund for plant workers sickened by asbestos exposure. But to people like Lynch, who lost his father and uncle to asbestos-related disease and now lobbies on behalf of mesothelioma victims, such actions don’t justify Schmidheiny’s freedom — nor his retention of an honorary doctorate from Yale.

Lynch wasn’t the only one to write a letter. Linda Reinstein, director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), wrote to the University after learning of a similar effort by AFeVa, the Italian Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association. Lynch and Reinstein’s letters went unanswered. But late last year, Christopher Meisenkothen, a lawyer representing AFeVa in Connecticut, struck up a written dialogue with University Secretary and Vice President Kimberly Goff-Crews. Goff-Crews stated in December the University’s resolve not to rescind Schmidheiny’s degree. But after Professor Thomas Pogge suggested in an interview with WNPR that the University establish a committee to investigate the issue, Meisenkothen made the same suggestion in January.

In her Jan. 30th response, Goff-Crews was less than receptive:

“Yale has demonstrated its concern for the victims of asbestos exposure through its pioneering work in the understanding and treatment of asbestos-related diseases,” she wrote. “You have done the same through litigation and public advocacy. It is from this standpoint of mutual respect that I ask you to accept as final the response that I have previously provided regarding reconsideration of Mr. Schmidheiny’s degree.”

Yale’s stated refusal to even reconsider Schmidheiny’s degree has left it at odds with asbestos victims and victims’ advocates worldwide. The University’s stance also raises questions about the meaning of an honorary degree, and Yale’s policies surrounding such awards. There’s more to the case, and others like it, than meets the eye.

* * *

It’s easy to see why Yale offers honorary degrees. When executed properly, they offer recipients some of Yale’s coveted store of recognition and validation, all while expanding the reach of Yale’s already formidable network and brand.

“The year I got [my honorary degree] at Yale, we even had a very well-known tap dancer,” recalled Thomas Schelling, an influential game theory professor who received an honorary degree in 2009. “When he was called up to receive the award, he did a pirouette onstage.” (Schelling corrected himself later to state that the recipient was in fact Bill Jones, a renowned modern choreographer.)

Yale has bestowed honorary degrees on everyone from Hillary Clinton to Willy Mays, but whatever the discipline — politics, scholarship, modern dance — an honorary degree from Yale is an acknowledgement of accomplishment.

“Since the commencement of 1702,” reads the website of Yale’s Office of the Secretary, “the Yale Corporation has awarded honorary degrees to recognize outstanding achievement.”

One word in that sentence is key to the story of Stephan Schmidheiny: recognition. An honorary degree from Yale affirms one’s status as a leader in some field. Perhaps it was this potential to easily legitimize an individual’s conduct that led Thomas Jefferson, fearing patronage and elitism, to ban honorary degrees at the University of Virginia in 1819.

But those whom Yale selects for degrees are also a reflection on the University: In selecting certain people as exemplary of “the aspirations of this institution,” Yale ties itself to their conduct. As long as an individual retains his degree, he acts, to some extent, in Yale’s name.

A university willing to recognize modern dance alongside scholarship demonstrates a certain open mindedness. But by the same token, when a degree recipient finds himself sentenced to 18 years in jail, some of the associated ignominy makes its way back to the conferring university as well.

If an individual behaves poorly after receiving an honorary doctorate from a university, Pogge noted, he is effectively dishonoring that institution. How would such behavior affect the value of other honorary degrees?

Schelling said he wouldn’t take it personally, but it would pique his curiosity. “I would wonder what had tipped the argument in [the recipient’s] favor,” he told me. In the case of Schmidheiny, that turns out to be an important question.

* * *

Honorary degrees are revoked from time to time, under extenuating circumstances. At the outbreak of World War I, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania revoked degrees they had been given to Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 2007, multiple universities revoked degrees awarded to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, when he was accused of severe human rights violations. And Tufts, of course, recently sent Lance Armstrong packing after revelations surfaced about his doping history.

But Yale has never revoked an honorary degree. The University emphasizes this in communications regarding the Schmidheiny case, suggesting that a truly overwhelming case would be required to outweigh historical precedent.

Schmidheiny’s accusers think they have just such a case. Yale, they believe, made an honest mistake in 1996. Reinstein suggested that background checks could prevent such mistakes in the future. That Yale hasn’t rescinded the degree, other advocates say, demonstrates only an unwillingness to face new facts.

In a December letter, Meisenkothen pointed out that important historical information has surfaced since Yale decision to give Schmidheiny the award.

“We can make mistakes,” Reinstein told me. “It’s how we deal with rectifying them that determines our inner core. It’s immoral not to take a look at what’s happened.”

To Schmidheiny’s accusers, the facts of the matter are more than adequate to justify rescinding his degree — which leads to the question of why Yale appears to have ignored those facts. The University does benefit from its relationships with degree recipients, and it’s tempting to believe those benefits often take a tangible form, denominated in dollars. Yale initially denied ever having received money from Mr. Schmidheiny, but in December, Meisenkothen sent Goff-Crews copies of press releases from 1996 and 1997 that listed Schmidheiny’s Avina Foundation as providing “major project support” for environmental workshops at Yale.

“Now we are uncovering major support provided by Mr. Schmidheiny’s foundation to Yale University around the time that he received the honorary degree,” Meisenkothen wrote.

The donations provided a possible answer to the question that Meisenkothen and others hadn’t been able to parse: why wouIdn’t Yale rescind the degree when, in their view, the facts demanded it? “[Yale’s position] raises the question of whether there are any circumstances under which Yale would (or is prepared to) revoke an honorary degree,” he said in a November letter.

Now, with the donation records, Meisenkothen felt he had a lead. It wasn’t exactly a smoking gun, but he smelled gunpowder.

* * *

Yale offers an unexpected response to advocates’ questions of why new evidence hasn’t changed the University’s position: Namely, that there is no new evidence. Yale’s official position downplays the outcome of the trial and says instead that Schmidheiny’s dealings in the asbestos industry were known and accounted for in vetting him for a degree.

Yale can also point to the unusual circumstances of Schmidheiny’s trial. Trials in absentia are extremely unusual, and illegal under most circumstance in the United States. But more striking is the fact that there was a criminal trial at all. In the United States, asbestos-related damages are usually negotiated outside a courtroom, or through civil damages suits at most.

The discrepancy between American and Italian approaches to asbestos damages gives Yale the ability to play down the Italian verdict.

“I think Yale is snubbing the Italian [justice] system,” Meisenkothen said in an interview with the Connecticut Law Tribune. And while Professor Pogge points out that Yale might have been justified in overlooking misdeeds unrelated to Schmidheiny’s recognized achievements, that’s clearly not the case here.

“Yale gave the honorary doctorate specifically for the environmental achievement of Schmidheiny,” he told me. “Only one of the two can be right. If the Italian court is right in convicting Schmidheiny for the environmental harm that he did, then we must rescind the degree.”

Pogge is quick to point out that he doesn’t necessarily think the Italian court was right. His claim is simpler: that if they were, and Schmidheiny was indeed an eco-criminal, then maintaining his degree would be inexcusable. Pogge laid out to me his hopes for an expert committee convened by Yale to determine not the legal, but rather the moral upshot of Schmidheiny’s actions in Italy. Yet Yale has stood its ground, insisting that Pogge’s hypothetical hasn’t even been discussed.

“The University,” wrote Goff-Crews in an email to the News, “does not believe that the ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the committee’s judgment regarding Mr. Schmidheiny.”

* * *

Why has so much ink been spilled over this controversy? The answer has to do with the power of an honorary degree to influence appearances.

Schelling posited that universities might award degrees to erase undeserved black marks on recipients’ reputations. Such degrees, he suggested, can alter the public perception of a recipient — and that’s exactly what’s at stake in the debate over Schmidheiny’s award. It’s hard to imagine this would play out as it has if Schmidheiny were actually in jail; once someone is in jail, arguing over appearances seems much less relevant. But Schmidheiny remains a free man, and given the strange nature of his trial and conviction his character is still up for debate.

“He’s convicted of a crime. It doesn’t matter where you live — that conviction follows you,” Reinstein insists. But it does matter that Schmidheiny was tried in absentia and the verdict was never enforced. Italy has, in essence, conferred a dishonorable degree, a testament to misdeeds. The result is a competition between two different public perceptions of Stephan Schmidheiny. Yale still recognizes him as a philanthropist; Reinstein wants to brand him as a criminal. Perhaps that explains her frequent use of a single phrase during our conversation: asbestos criminal.

Lynch, the asbestos workers’ union official, wrote to Salovey in March that “The character revealed in the trial is at odds with the image of environmental philanthropist and green businessman” that Yale recognized. His degree, in other words, belies what accusers believe to be the “real” Schmidheiny, as “revealed in the trial.” Schmidheiny knows this, some of his accusers contend, and they believe that the honorary degree from Yale was a form of “greenwashing” designed to mask his past environmental misdeeds.

Reinstein, among others, made such a case explicitly.

“I believe that Yale might have fallen prey to a clever PR scheme to absolve Schmidheiny of the crimes he committed,” she said.

According to Pogge, there is some evidence for such a claim — a claim that, if true, would call into question the integrity of the honorary degree process and of the institution itself. Yet such a revelation would also answer the question at the heart of the matter: Why has Yale refused to even consider rescinding the degree?

In the years before Schmidheiny received his honorary doctorate, Pogge told me, some of his lower-level managers in Italy were under criminal investigation. Schmidheiny knew he might shortly find himself in a similar situation. Schmidheiny hired a public relations firm to head off scrutiny of his actions, Pogge said.

“He quite deliberately was trying to make it harder to indict him for environmental misconduct,” he noted. “He also gave money to Yale University.” That was the “major project support” that Meisenkothen unearthed back in December, after Yale had denied its existence.

If it turns out that Schmidheiny is not the environmental philanthropist that Yale recognized in 1996, the University has a responsibility to find out exactly why he was honored, Pogge argued. Was it an honest mistake, or something more sinister? As pressure mounts from the media (Meisenkothen’s last letter to Goff-Crews included a long list of publications that had covered the story), Yale’s actions and motives will come under increased scrutiny.

In relatively minor cases, Pogge told me, it might make sense for an image-conscious university to refrain from rescinding an undeserved degree, so as not to “rock the boat.” But it is far too late, he thinks, to sweep the Schmidheiny affair under the rug.

 

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