|Stephan Schmidheiny has played a huge role in environmental matters around the world over the last 37 years is not up for debate.|
What is hotly contested about the Swiss industrialist-turned-philanthropist and author is whether he's rightly portrayed as a hero or a villain. And Yale University, which gave Schmidheiny an honorary doctorate in 1996, is caught in the middle — with that degree as a global political football.
In 1976, when he was 29 years old, Schmidheiny took over the Swiss Eternit Group, a business founded by his grandfather. The company had become one of Europe's largest asbestos firms, making cement products girded with the deadly mineral throughout the continent and in Brazil. Schmidheiny was 29 and a newly minted lawyer.
Within 10 years, the Italian arm of the business, with five factories, closed in bankruptcy.
After Eternit, Schmidheiny, born rich and growing richer through ties to Switzerland's best known companies, turned his attention to ecologically sustainable development. He created a charity and endowed it with more than $1 billion, launched a nonprofit foundation that operates in 17 Latin American countries and founded a global business group dedicated to private-sector environmentalism.
That was the Stephan Schmidheiny that Yale feted, and not just with an honorary degree. In 2000, Schmidheiny was a keynote speaker at the centennial of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which...