Yale urged to pull honorary degree over Italy asbestos deaths

By Jim Shelton, New Haven Register, 03/04/14 –

New Haven lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen represents a group of Italian asbestos victims requesting that Yale rescind a 1996 honorary degree to Stephan Schmidheiny. Mara Lavitt — New Haven Register

New Haven lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen represents a group of Italian asbestos victims requesting that Yale rescind a 1996 honorary degree to Stephan Schmidheiny. Mara Lavitt — New Haven Register

 NEW HAVEN – Victims of asbestos poisoning in Italy, as well as some alumni and faculty in the U.S., are urging Yale University to take back an honorary degree it gave to a man whose factories caused the deaths of thousands of people.Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire and former owner of the asbestos products company Eternit, was convicted in 2012 by an Italian court and sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role in the decades-long contamination of sites in and around Casale Monferrato, in northern Italy. An appellate court in 2013 affirmed the conviction and bumped up the sentence to 18 years.

Another appeal is pending and Schmidheiny is not in custody.

At issue in New Haven is the honorary degree Yale awarded to Schmidheiny in 1996. That honor cited Schmidheiny as “one of the world’s most environmentally conscious business leaders” and lauded his efforts to create sustainable development.

The honorary degree material also said of Schmidheiny, “When he acquired a global company based on asbestos-reinforced concrete, he introduced a new technology to replace asbestos in all its products.”

But the families of asbestos poisoning victims in Casale Monferrato contend that description is far from accurate.

“The situation in Italy is the exact opposite of what Schmidheiny was given the honorary degree for,” said New Haven attorney Christopher Meisenkothen, who represents AFEVA, the Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association, in Italy.

“It flies in the face of actual history. This is a matter of honor for the Italian victims,” Meisenkothen said.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people have died in Italy from mesothelioma, lung cancer and other diseases related to asbestos exposure. In Casale Monferrato, asbestos contamination spread beyond the Eternit plant and into waterways and even a recreational beach.

“This is a gorgeous, rural environment of olive trees and agriculture that has been irretrievably contaminated,” said Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant from Maryland who testified in the case on behalf of the Italian government in 2011. “Because of the utter lack of safeguards at this plant, and management’s dispersion of this material by any means possible, I don’t see that the contamination risk will ever end there.”

Italian courts found that Schmidheiny knowingly downplayed the health risks of asbestos at his plants and failed to properly warn workers or adequately dispose of hazardous waste for years.

“Every family has had one or two people who have died, or it’s been a neighbor or a friend,” said Assunta Prato, an AFEVA leader whose husband died of pleural mesothelioma. She spoke via conference call from Italy, with the help of a translator.

“This changed my life and it changed my children’s lives,” Prato said.

Meisenkothen has written to Yale repeatedly in the past six months, asking it to rescind its honorary degree to Schmidheiny in light of what is now known about his involvement in the case. Thus far, Yale has not relented.

“I realize Yale has never revoked an honorary degree before, but I really think this warrants another look,” Meisenkothen said.

At the very least, he said, Yale should appoint a faculty committee to review the matter and make a recommendation.

“A lot of this information was not available to Yale at the time they awarded the degree,” Meisenkothen said. “Yale is not our adversary. We just want to give them information they didn’t have before, so they can do the right thing.”

Yale has acknowledged at least two grants the university received in the 1990s from Schmidheiny. The amounts of those grants is not known.

Meanwhile, for Prato and other family members of victims, the Yale degree to Schmidheiny is a stinging reminder of injustice.

Her initial reaction, she said, was “total disbelief. I thought they were making fun of us. I thought they were adding insult to injury.”

Christopher Sellers, a history professor at Stony Brook University who earned a Yale degree in 1992, said he’s similarly bothered by Schmidheiny’s honorary degree. He wrote to Yale President Peter Salovey to express his concerns recently, but has not received a reply.

“It shames me as a Yale graduate to think Yale isn’t willing to look at what it did here,” Sellers said. “For me, it’s pretty clear that if Yale had known in 1996 everything we know today, it wouldn’t have honored Schmidheiny with this degree.”

Sellers added that he knows of other Yale alumni and faculty who want Yale to reconsider the degree. “I’ve heard a lot of grumbling,” Sellers said.

Another critic is Thomas Pogge, a Yale philosophy professor who told WNPR in an interview that he would support a faculty examination of the case.

But Yale has given no indication it will change its mind.

In a letter to Meisenkothen in December, Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s secretary and vice president for student life, said the university would not rescind the honorary degree.

At the time the honor was given, Goff-Crews wrote, it was “well known that Mr. Schmidheiny launched efforts to find alternative products and to move the company away from asbestos production as soon as he gained executive authority at his family’s company.”

Goff-Crews also wrote that “the revocation of an honorary degree would be unprecedented at Yale, and we do not believe that the events subsequent to the award of the degree call into question the essential information upon which (Yale) acted.”

In a statement, Yale said any decision to revoke an honorary degree would have to come from the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body.

“The decision to award the degree was made by a committee that considered his 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, as well as a businessman who inherited and dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern,” the statement said.

Even so, Prato said she and other AFEVA families will continue to push for action from Yale.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I fear the chances are low. But the fact that we’re talking about it is a good thing.”


Call Jim Shelton at 203-789-5664. Have questions, feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AskTheRegister.com.

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