Barry Castleman

As old friends and classmates gathered for cocktail receptions, faculty panel discussions and exhibitions during the alumni reunion festivities last weekend, a group of alumni in the class of 1964 urged University administrators to revoke Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny’s Yale honorary degree.

While the University awarded Schmidheiny an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1996 for his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development, the environmental damages caused by his cement-manufacturing company, Etermit Corporation, have since become evident. Last month, Schmidheiny was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison in a court in Turin, Italy, where two asbestos-related deaths occurred.

At the reunion, Dan Berman ’64 and a few of his classmates distributed copies of a Forbes story about Schmidheiny’s manslaughter conviction as well as Berman’s Yale Alumni Magazine letter requesting the University to revoke the billionaire’s degree. Berman told the News that he personally confronted University President Peter Salovey about Schmidheiny’s ethical violations and demanded that Salovey reconsider the honor Yale endowed on the now-turned criminal.

“[Salovey] thanked me for bringing this up and said he’s glad I’m pushing for this,” Berman said. “He said his wife’s first job after college was with a group called [Connecticut Department of Labor’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health]. … He seemed to know a lot about it. He didn’t promise to do anything, but he was listening. I said ‘I hope you recommend [revoking Schmidheiny’s degree] to other members of the Corporation.’”

The Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, is the only group with the authority to confer and revoke honorary degrees. Last year, the Corporation broke its precedent of not revoking honorary letters and voted to rescind comedian Bill Cosby’s degree. Less than a week before the Corporation’s decision, Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault, which University spokesman Tom Conroy called “clear and convincing evidence” that Cosby’s conduct violated Yale’s standards of decency.

But in a statement to the News last week, Conroy said the Yale Corporation has no plans to reconsider Schmidheiny’s degree at this time.

“The proceedings in Italy do not provide a basis for board action because criminal trials in absentia do not meet U.S. standards of due process,” Conroy said.

Still, in an interview with the News, Barry Castleman, a public health expert and an author of “Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects,” argued that Yale should not “protect Schmidheiny” from pleas from individuals within the University community and asbestos-related victims around the world. The environmental damages Schmidheiny caused clearly violate the standard of conduct expected of all members of the Yale community, Castleman explained.

Since the Italian criminal court first convicted Schmidheiny of gross negligence in the deaths of 2,000 civilians living near his asbestos factories, dozens of concerned alumni have signed letters and petitions to Salovey requesting him to reconsider the billionaire’s honorary degree status. Last year, thirty alumni signed a letter calling for the University to reconsider both Cosby and Schmidheiny’s honorary degrees.

Serena Cho | .