Updated: Dec. 1, 2:30 a.m.
Although Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny emerged victorious from a prolonged court battle, faculty and experts maintain that Yale should rescind his 1996 honorary degree.
Earlier this month, Schmidheiny’s conviction regarding thousands of asbestos-related deaths was overturned in the Italian Supreme Court. Schmidheiny, who was a majority shareholder in Eternit Genova, a company that controlled four factories in Northern Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison for negligence in over 3,000 deaths due to asbestos exposure.
However, the Italian Supreme Court nullified this ruling on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired in the charges filed. Although members of the Yale community have called upon the University throughout the legal proceedings to rescind the honorary degree it bestowed upon Schmidheiny nearly 20 years ago, the University has repeated it would not revoke the award.
“It is a scandal that Yale has protected this guy despite the pleas they have been receiving from so many parties both in the outside world and within the Yale community,” Barry Castleman, a witness for the prosecution in the case and author of “Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects,” wrote in an email. “Regardless of the arbitrary basis for the dismissal of the case, it is clear from the statements of the prosecutor and others that Schmidheiny is guilty of the acts charged and only evaded responsibility through the use of a legal technicality.”
Castleman called upon Yale to submit the issue of the honorary degree to an independent expert faculty and alumni committee, tasked with fully reviewing and making recommendations to the Yale Corporation on the matter.
Castleman joins a multitude of other voices calling for University action in the case of Schmidheiny, both on campus and across the Atlantic.
Over 50 alumni have signed a petition urging the University revoke the degree. In addition, Concetta Palazzetti, the mayor of the Italian town Casale Monferrato, wrote an open letter, along with 34 other mayors of neighboring municipalities, calling for University President Peter Salovey to take action.
“We consider it unacceptable that a criminal such as he is, a man who has shown no respect for human life, should be allowed to continue to bear the sign of your appreciation and honor,” Palazzetti said.
Still, University administrators have maintained that Yale will not revoke the degree.
University spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in an email that Yale stands by its decision, and the recent legal decision has not changed its stance. He added that the University has never revoked an honorary degree on grounds other than academic and other fraud.
“Yale does not currently believe that ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the judgment made by the committee in 1996,” he said.
Conroy’s language is nearly identical to the wording used by University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews in a December 2013 letter to Christopher Meisenkothen, the attorney representing some of the victims affected by asbestos illnesses.
Meisenkothen said the University response has been unacceptable since it has simply regurgitated the same “vacuous” talking points since the fall, rather than engaging the issue. He added that Yale’s history of never revoking an honorary degree is not a reason not to do so now.
“It is a prestigious world class institution that prides itself on being global and smart and sophisticated, and all they have been doing here is being ignorant and unsophisticated and provincial,” Meisenkothen said. “It is an insult to injury … [for Schmidheiny] to be given an award for eco-friendly business practices and environmentalism — it’s a slap in the face to the victims.”
He added that while there may be debate on whether Schmidheiny should have been awarded the degree in the first place, the recent court decision should not have bearing on Yale’s responsibility to act in rescinding the degree.
According to the 1996 profile accompanying his honorary degree, Schmidheiny was recognized as one of the world’s most environmentally conscious business leaders. The document cited his achievement in introducing technology to replace asbestos in his company’s products.
Elisabeth Meyerhans Sarasin, a spokeswoman for Schmidheiny, wrote in an email that her client welcomed the verdict from the Italian Supreme Court. She added the defense maintains he is not responsible for the asbestos related deaths.
“Stephan Schmidheiny is regarded worldwide as a pioneer who implemented the safest possible methods for asbestos processing,” she said. “His responsible industrial activities prevented thousands of people from contracting an asbestos-related disease.”
Regarding the future of the case, Castleman said the next step for the victims may be to go to the European Court of Human Rights and appeal the decision of the Italian Supreme Court.
According to Yale News releases in 1996 and 1997, the Avina Foundation — which Schmidheiny serves as president for — made multiple donations to Yale, although the size of these gifts were not disclosed.