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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Yale Urged to Revoke Honorary Degree to Convicted Asbestos Magnate

Today's post is shared from  Barry Castleman author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, Fifth Edition.

WNPR radio in New Haven CT has just run a second piece on this theme, longer than the one on Dec. 23.  Yale declined to send anyone to be interviewed about its refusal to reconsider awarding the honorary degree to the asbestos billionaire.  The story runs for the first 16 minutes of the program and ends with me being asked if the asbestos magnate's philanthropy erased or greenwashed his asbestos past.  I had testified on the public health and corporate history of asbestos in the criminal trial in Italy.

Those who want to write to the President of Yale can contact Peter Salovey:


An Italian organization representing victims of asbestos exposure has asked Yale University to rescind an honorary degree awarded to the owner of the company they once worked for.
In the mid-1970s, Swiss billionaire Stefan Schmidheiny took over his family's business.  The Eternit company had plants around the world that produced asbestos-cement products.  The largest was in Casale Monferrato, Italy.
Connecticut lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen represents shipyard workers and boiler makers who worked with asbestos here in the US and later developed diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.  He is handling the Italian request to Yale, pro bono.
Meisenkothen described notes from an Eternit company meeting in the 1970s.  "Clearly", he said, "they were acknowledging in 1976 that the workers were at risk.  The plant continued to use asbestos for many years after that.  They could have given the workers respiratory protection [or] installed exhaust fans.  And the worker testimony from workers at the time consistently indicates that there were no serious precautions taken at the plant."

Two years later, Schmidheiny began to dismantle the company's asbestos-processing concern.  He went on to use his wealth to support eco-friendly sustainable development in other parts of the world.
In 2012, Schmidheiny was tried in absentia in Italy.  He was found guilty of causing the deaths of thousands of people in Casale Monferrato, and has been sentenced to 18 yeaars in prison.   Victims and their families said Yale should reconsider whether he still deserves an honorary degree.

Thomas Pogge, a professor in the philosophy department at Yale University, said the accusations deserve careful inquiry.   "This is very important new information," he said, "that I think , at the very least, should be looked at very carefully by the authorities  at Yale.   Yale has a very distinguished record, actually, in asbestos research.   And we have the requisite expertise to convene an excellent faculty committee that could look into this case in more depth."

Yale authorities declined WNPR's request for comment, but in a statement, said the 1996 honorary degree  was based on Schmidheiny's advocacy for sustainable economic  development.  Yale has never revoked an honorary degree.

Added Note (BC):   In letters exchanged with attorney Christopher Meisenkothen in the past few months, Yale first denied and was later obliged to admit receiving money from Schmidheiny's Avina Foundation before and after the award of the degree in the mid-1990s.  Yale alumni and others who wish to see these letters and/or express their views are welcome to contact me or Chris (cc'd here).  You may also want to write to the President of Yale, Peter Salovey: