Nearly two decades after Yale awarded Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny an honorary degree, dozens of alumni are calling for the University to rescind its highest honor.
A Swiss industrial magnate whose fortune has been measured at around $3.3 billion by Forbes, Schmidheiny was the former owner of the construction firm Eternit. In February 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 years of jail for negligence that led to the asbestos-related deaths of over 2,000 people in Italy. Still, he has denied any wrongdoing and an appeal is pending.
As Yale graduates prepare to return to New Haven for their class reunions, more than 50 alumni have signed a petition demanding the University revoke the degree given to Schmidheiny.
“We believe that revoking that high honor will reinforce Yale’s commitment to its motto Lux et Veritas (light and truth) while the whole world is watching,” the petition said.
Some signees of the petition have also called for a meeting with University President Peter Salovey at the end of the month when a number of reunion events are scheduled — though Salovey has yet to issue a response.
Dr. Martin Cherniak ’70, a signee of the petition and an asbestos researcher, told the New Haven Register that Yale’s refusal to reverse its decision is a symbolic snub to the victims and their families.
In a profile of Schmidheiny published in conjunction with his receipt of an honorary degree in 1996, Yale cited the industrialist’s legacy as “one of the world’s most environmentally conscious business leaders.” The profile added that Schmidheiny had “helped to create an attainable vision of a global economy based on sustainable, ecologically sound development.”
Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the New Haven Register that the University’s position on Schmidheiny’s degree is unchanged. Yale has never in its history revoked an honorary degree.
In addition to the alumni, the Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association, a group of victims based in Italy, has also lobbied the University to rescind Schmidheiny’s degree through private and open letters to Salovey and University Secretary and Vice-President for Student Life Kim Goff-Crews. New Haven lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen, who represents the group, has written to the University requesting the permission to address the Yale Corporation, the body which is ultimately responsible for conferring honorary degrees.
The group has also made repeated claims that Schmidheiny’s foundation donated money to the University in 1995 and 1996 before Yale awarded the billionaire an honorary degree.
Eight individuals, including Schmidheiny, received honorary degrees in 1996, including the distinguished neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson ’73, songwriter Paul Simon and jurist Richard Posner ’59.