The controversy surrounding the Swiss billionaire and Yale honorary degree recipient Stephan Schmidheiny took its latest turn recently, after dozens of concerned alumni signed multiple letters and petitions to University President Peter Salovey demanding a committee to reconsider Schmidheiny’s degree status.
In these communications, alumni renewed their desire for Yale to reconsider Schmidheiny’s degree in context of what they see as clear humanitarian and ethical failures by the manufacturing tycoon, whose plants’ use of asbestos have lead to over 2,000 deaths in northern Italy. Schmidheiny’s company, Eternit Corporation, manufactures cement and asbestos. Yale awarded him an honorary degree in 1996 for his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development.
The latest development came on the heels of the establishment of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. In their Oct. 20 letter to President Salovey, Daniel Berman ’64 and Martin Cherniack ’70 requested that either the current renaming committee be expanded to consider the revocation of Schmidheiny’s degree or that a separate committee be formed.
“The overlap between these honorary degrees and the refusal to ‘unname’ Calhoun College is intuitive and a discredit to the University’s judgment, moral character and openness to redressing past wrongs,” the letter read.
The alumni also demanded that the University re-evaluate the honorary degree conferred upon comedian and actor Bill Cosby in 2003. The University of Connecticut revoked Cosby’s honorary degree in June, but Yale has remained silent, despite multiple sexual assault allegations against him surfaced in 2014.
“This seems like a perfect time to finally get around to dealing with these honorary degrees,” said Barry Castleman, an asbestos expert who testified in Schmidheiny’s public-endangerment trial and has followed the proceedings of the court in Italy. “A similar committee [to the renaming committee] could apply the same moral logic in coming up with their principles for recommendations in matters of this kind.”
Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told the News that the University had received the Oct. 20 letter and would “respond soon.”
In response to the News’ inquires on the possibility of such a committee, Goff-Crews attached a statement previously issued to the News. In the statement, she explained that Yale has never revoked an honorary degree and that any decision to do so would have to be made by the Yale Corporation.
“Yale does not believe that the Italian legal proceedings provided cause to reconsider the judgment made by the committee in 1996,” the statement read.
In 2012, Schmidheiny was sentenced to 16 years of prison for public endangerment by the Italian justice system, due to the human and environmental damages caused by an asbestos-cement factory that Eternit Corporation operated in the town of Casale Monferrato in northern Italy. The contamination the factory caused has killed over 2,000 people from asbestos-exposure to date, and approximately 50 people continue to die annually due to asbestos-related mesothelioma in Casale Monferrato, according to the findings of the Italian court.
In November 2014, the conviction against Schmidheiny was overturned by Italy’s highest court due to restrictions set by the statute of limitations. However, like the United States, Italy has is no statute of limitations with respect to murder charges. On July 21, 2016, after a Turin prosecutor pursued the case, the Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic ruled that the murder trial against Schmidheiny would go forward.
Since then, Schmidheiny’s defense team has asked that the court consider the case as a charge of manslaughter, according to Castleman. Castleman said that if the case is tried as manslaughter, it would be moved to a court in a more rural area in Italy. Castleman speculated that Schmidheiny’s lawyers might have been motivated to do this because they believe that the more rural court will be tried in front of judges that can be more easily influenced.
On Nov. 5, Milton Carrigan ’64 also sent a letter in support of the Oct. 20 petition correspondence.
“Now that it’s known that Schmidheiny’s Eternit Corporation’s asbestos-cement factory in the town of Casale Monferrato in northern Italy has killed over 2,000 people from exposure to asbestos and continues to do so, revoking the degree is clearly ethically warranted,” Carrigan wrote. “At stake is Yale’s moral character and integrity. Inaction will be judged harshly in future accounts of the University’s history.”
In all correspondences with the University, Yale alumni, over 20 mayors of various northern Italian towns and Italian citizens who were affected by the asbestos from Schmidheiny’s factory have repeatedly criticized the University’s failure to revoke Schmidheiny’s honorary degree.
Carrigan argued that the lack of precedent in revoking an honorary degree is hardly sufficient grounds for not taking any action.
Yale awarded Schmidheiny an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.