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Alumni ask Yale to revoke honorary degree

“Not content to be a steward of a family business, you have used your corporate role to promote stewardship of the global environment,” Yale's then-president, Rick Levin ’74PhD, said as he awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters to Stephan Schmidheiny in 1996.

“You have made company decisions based on the health of the planet.”

Daniel Berman ’64 and a small group of fellow Yale alumni see the matter differently.

After an Italian criminal court convicted Schmidheiny—a billionaire Swiss industrialist turned environmentalist and philanthropist—of causing an “environmental disaster” and thousands of asbestos-related deaths, the alumni joined a transnational campaign calling on Yale to rescind his honorary degree.

Noting that Yale awarded the degree “before the American public became aware of the dark side of Mr. Schmidheiny’s career,” the alumni write: “we believe that revoking that high honor will reinforce Yale’s commitment to its motto Lux et Veritas while the whole world is watching.”

Yale says it has never revoked an honorary degree and sees no reason to do so here. Nonetheless, university secretary and vice president Kim Goff-Crews ’83, ’86JD, told to Berman that—“out of respect for your many years of engagement on behalf of workers’ health and your membership in the Yale community”—she will meet with him on Friday afternoon, when he'll be on campus for his 50th reunion.

“I will not engage in a discussion of Yale’s position,” Goff-Crews wrote to Berman, who writes about workplace health, including asbestos-related illness. But “you may present what you believe are relevant facts regarding Mr. Schmidheiny’s involvement in the Italian case before the time that the degree was awarded in 1996.”

Berman and Goff-Crews will be joined by fellow alumni Martin Cherniack ’70, an occupational medicine specialist, and Jennifer Lucarelli ’95, whose New Haven law firm represents an Italian asbestos victims’ group, AFEVA.

And the alumni advocates are stepping up their campaign. Berman recently submitted a “reconsider Schmidheiny” petition with 53 alumni signatories. Now they've launched a website, where they hope to garner more signatures.

“Fully aware of the lethal dangers”

Schmidheiny headed Eternit AG, which produced asbestos-containing construction materials, from around 1976 to 1990, according to his website. (Lucarelli's law firm disputes the timeline.) Forbes pegs his net worth at $3 billion.

In 2012, an Italian criminal court convicted him in absentia of gross negligence in the deaths of thousands of Italians who worked at or lived near two Eternit plants. Last June, an appeals court upheld the conviction and increased Schmidheiny’s sentence to 18 years.

The appellate judges found that “Mr. Schmidheiny was fully aware of the lethal dangers of asbestos,” the Yale alumni petition says. “The Appeals Court also concluded that the deadly effects of asbestos were well understood among directors of the asbestos industry, including Eternit, years before Mr. Schmidheiny took over as chief executive of Eternit.”

In fact, the trial court contended that Schmidheiny personally participated in a misinformation campaign aimed at portraying asbestos as safe if properly handled, according to a letter from one of Lucarelli's law partners.

“The Bill Gates of Switzerland”

Schmidheiny’s official biography tells a starkly different story.

The young graduate lawyer” took over the family business “and immediately began to drive forward the exit from asbestos processing, which was considered to be a worldwide pioneering achievement,” it says. That exit took about a decade to complete.

In the 1990s, Schmidheiny turned from industry to investing, philanthropy, and environmentally sustainable business practices. He cofounded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and wrote a bestselling book on the subject.

“It was not without cause,” his website says, “that Forbes heralded Stephan Schmidheiny as ‘The Bill Gates of Switzerland.’”

What's more, “Stephan Schmidheiny is the only one who cares for the asbestos victims in Italy,” his spokeswoman told the New Haven Register in an e-mail. She cites a “humanitarian” compensation program “based on Stephan Schmidheiny’s social principles and philanthropic motives.”

The Italian victims’ group is unimpressed. After Schmidheiny’s conviction was upheld last year, the group began asking Yale to reconsider its honorary degree in light of the new information.

No precedent for revocation

Goff-Crews responded that the 1996 committee “considered Mr. Schmidheiny’s full record as a philanthropist who used his wealth to fund sustainable development in Latin America and elsewhere, and a path-breaking international advocate of change in the way businesses address environmental sustainability, and as a businessman who inherited and dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern.”

She adds: “Yale has never revoked an honorary degree, and the university does not believe that the ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the committee’s judgment regarding Mr. Schmidheiny. In keeping with his philanthropic goals, Mr. Schmidheiny's foundation, AVINA, provided Yale with funding for two projects on environment subjects, but such support has never been a criterion for the conferral of an honorary degree.”

“At least a possibility that Yale has been had”

Nonetheless, some on campus think Yale should convene a new committee, made up of faculty with relevant expertise, to review the record of the man Levin called “one of the world's most environmentally conscious business leaders.”

“There is at least a possibility that Yale has been had,” Thomas Pogge, a professor of philosophy and international affairs, told the Yale Daily News in February. Without passing judgment on the merits, he says Yale “would be well-advised to look into it” anew.

This article was updated on May 29, 2014, with additional information about the meeting between university Secretary Kim Goff-Crews and Yale alumni.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Stephan Schmidheiny, asbestos, honorary degrees

1 comment

  • RJ Nieto
    RJ Nieto, 9:31pm June 07 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Yale awarded George W Bush an honorary degree despite Iraq.

    Enough said.

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