Thirty alumni signed a letter calling for Yale to reconsider the honorary degrees it awarded to comedian Bill Cosby and Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny — who will both face criminal trials this month — citing Yale’s new principles on renaming, which the University used to justify changing the namesake of Calhoun College.
The letter asks the University to apply those same principles to the question of whether to revoke an honorary degree — evaluating whether the principal legacy of the honoree is “at odds with the mission of the university” and whether the honoree’s “relevant principal legacy” was “significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived.”
Since Cosby was awarded an honorary degree in 2003 for his philanthropy and advocacy for “education, children, and the support of African-American art and artists,” he has been accused of sexual assault by more than 50 women. In December 2015, he was arraigned on three charges of felony aggravated indecent assault. His criminal retrial began earlier this month, after the first trial ended in a hung jury last June.
For his part, Schmidheiny, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1996 for using his “corporate role to promote stewardship of the global environment,” faces a manslaughter trial in connection with the deaths of 258 workers at asbestos cement plants in Italy.
“I think it’s a mistake for Yale to stand behind this award to Mr. Schmidheiny,” said Daniel Berman ’64, who co-authored the letter. “Yale should apply these [principles on renaming] to Bill Cosby and especially to Schmidheiny… It’s not in line with what Yale should be supporting.”
In a statement to the News on Sunday, University spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale is not actively considering rescinding Cosby’s and Schmidheiny’s honorary degrees. Yale has never rescinded an honorary degree, Conroy said, adding that “any change to this longstanding practice would have to be taken up by the board of trustees, which is the body that confers degrees.”
In 2012, an Italian court found Schmidheiny guilty of “public endangerment by creating an environmental disaster” in connection with the deaths of more than 2,000 people caused by four cement asbestos factories owned by Eternit Genova, a firm in which the Swiss billionaire was a majority shareholder. He was initially sentenced to 18 years in prison, only for the decision to be overturned by Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation on the grounds that the 10-year statute of limitations for public endangerment had expired.
Now, Schmidheiny is facing separate manslaughter trials in four Italian regions where Eternit factories were once located, as the statute of limitations on that charge is different. The first trial in Turin is scheduled to begin on April 26.
The University has long resisted efforts to have Cosby’s and Schmidheiny’s honorary degrees rescinded.
Yale alumni, Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto — an Italian asbestos victims group — and mayors of 35 Italian towns where the asbestos-related deaths occurred previously asked Yale to revoke Schmidheiny’s degree in 2014 and in 2016, but the University refused, saying it had never revoked one in the past. Last Thursday, the victims group also sent a separate letter to the University asking for both Schmidheiny’s and Cosby’s degrees to be revoked on the basis of the principles on renaming.
Christopher Meisenkothen, an attorney for Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto who first contacted University Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews about the honorary degree issue in 2014, said Yale has sent him only “robo-responses” that do not offer an “intellectually or ethically sound position.”
“Yale does not currently believe that ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the judgment made by the committee in 1996,” Conroy told the News in 2014.
Berman said he requested a meeting with University President Peter Salovey in 2014, after which Goff-Crews reaffirmed Yale’s policy against rescinding honorary degrees.
After allegations against Cosby reached the national spotlight in December 2014, 198 students signed a petition calling for Yale to rescind the comedian’s degree. But even after the University of Pennsylvania announced last February that it would join a growing number of schools that have revoked Cosby’s honorary degrees, Goff-Crews told the News that Yale had no plans to do the same.
Berman said the renewed push to have the two degrees revoked has been inspired in part by “the dust up” over the renaming of Calhoun in 2017.
Yale gave its first honorary degree in 1702.
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