Prestigious Yale University, a world leader in higher education, has come under fire after rejecting a call to support victims of asbestos exposure, and bypassing the opportunity to use its influence in raising awareness to the cause.
Yale University has refused to revoke the honorary degree it presented to Switzerland billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny.
He was convicted in 2012 of creating the asbestos environmental disaster that caused at least 2,000 deaths in Italy and countless more around the world.
The Ivy League school in 1996 awarded Schmidheiny, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison, the honorary degree for his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development, according to a Yale spokesperson.
Schmidheiny is also known as a philanthropist with a worldwide reach, funding eco-friendly, sustainable developments throughout North and South America.
Yale University officials recently informed the Italy-based Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association that it would not rescind the honorary degree based on his conviction in Italy, which has been upheld by an appeals court that added two more years to his sentence. Schmidheiny remains free pending a second appeal in 2014 to the country’s highest court.
“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,” Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale Student Life vice president wrote to Christopher Meisenkothen, the Connecticut attorney representing the victims group.
Alumni of Yale University include five U.S. presidents, 19 U.S Supreme Court justices and many foreign heads of state. It is the third-oldest institution of higher learning in America, and has an endowment worth an estimated $21 billion.
“We’re really very disappointed in Yale’s response,” Meisenkothen told the Connecticut Law Tribune. “Yale doesn’t address the Italian legal proceedings, and the significant historical evidence that was revealed during the trial. I think Yale is snubbing the Italian system.”
Schmidheiny was convicted of causing the asbestos environmental disaster in Casale Monferrato, a small town in northern Italy. He was the chief executive officer of Eternit, a huge corporation that included an asbestos cement plant there. Prosecutors charged that he was grossly negligent in exposing the workers and town residents to dangerous asbestos fibers, long after the toxicity of the product was known.
Exposure to asbestos has been proven to cause a number of illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, which is an aggressive cancer without a cure. An estimated 100,000 people in the world die annually from asbestos-related diseases.
Schmidheiny had taken over the family business in 1976 and did little initially to change the asbestos cement operation. Workers and families in the town later developed unusually high numbers of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma.
Eternit continued its use of crocidolite asbestos well into the 80s, according to testimony at the trial. Schmidheiny’s official biography says he ended his company’s use of asbestos in 1986.
His conviction cited responsibility for thousands of deaths, including those working at the plant and others living in town. That caused families of asbestos victims to question his honorary degree at Yale, where even some academics are now raising the same issues.
“This is very important, new information that I think, at the very least, should be looked at very carefully by the authorities at Yale,” Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy at Yale, told WNPR News in December 2013. “We have the requisite expertise to convene an excellent faculty committee that could look into this case in more depth.”
Italy and more than 50 other countries have banned asbestos and the manufacturing of asbestos products. It remains a carefully controlled, but legal product in the U.S. Still, more than 1,000 tons of asbestos are imported annually.
Many advocacy groups continue lobbying for legislation to ban it in America, but there has not been a group strong enough to make it happen. That’s where Yale University, with all its political muscle, could help the fight by revoking an honorary degree for the first time.
“The scope of the harm caused the plant is so widespread that it really stands out as a particularly egregious example of the tragic legacy of asbestos,” Meisenkothen said.