Families of those killed by asbestos-related lung diseases are demanding that Yale University revoke an honorary degree given to a Swiss billionaire who was convicted last week of aggravated manslaughter in the deaths of over a hundred people linked to asbestos exposure.
The effort is spear-headed by AFeVA (or the Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto), an Italian group made up of family members of those killed by diseases linked to asbestos exposure, and targets Stephan Schmidheiny, a former CEO of a Swiss asbestos cement company called Eternit. Eternit operated multiple asbestos mines and cement product manufacturing plants on multiple continents that exposed workers to harmful, cancer-causing asbestos.
Asbestos refers to a group of six different minerals that have been widely used in building materials and as a fire retardant. People exposed to asbestos are at increased risk of developing lung diseases, particularly mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the thin lining of the lungs. Just 10% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma live more than five years beyond their diagnosis.
Last week’s conviction gave Schmidheiny a 12-year jail sentence over the deaths of hundreds of workers and residents due to asbestos exposure in Casale Monferrato, an Italian town that hosted one of Eternit’s largest factories until the plant’s closure in 1986. About 50 new cases of mesothelioma are still reported in Casale Monferrato each year, according to The Guardian.
Schmidheiny could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson for Schmidheiny told The New Lede that his legal defense plans to appeal the verdict.
In 1996, Schmidheiny was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale for his “his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development,” according to a representative for Yale. Schmidheiny has also given money to Yale in support of research on sustainable development, though Yale declined to give the exact amount of donations it received.
Efforts to get Yale to revoke Schmidheiny’s honorary degree have been ongoing for about a decade; in 2014, over 50 Yale alumni signed a petition urging the university to do so. In October, AFeVA joined the effort, and requested that Yale administrators revoke the billionaire’s honorary degree and return Schmidheiny’s gifts, arguing that the gifts violate Yale’s new giving policy that was adopted last May.
The giving policy holds that gifts will not be accepted if Yale determines that the gift was made for the primary purpose of benefiting the donor. The policy also allows for the return of gifts in “exceptional circumstances” when new information about the gift comes to light. AFeVA alleges that Schmidheiny’s legal troubles related to the deaths of factory workers constitute new information relevant to Yale’s gift policy.
Assunta Prato, a member of AFeVA, moved to Casale after getting married in 1975. She said her family begged her not to go to the highly polluted town, but she moved anyway, believing that she and her husband, Paolo Ferraris, were safe as they did not work in the asbestos materials factory. But 19 years later, her husband got sick, and eventually passed away from mesothelioma.
“We shared in a community tragedy,” said Prato. “What has happened is unfair and unjust.”
AFeVA alleges that Schmidheiny made the gifts to Yale in an attempt to bolster his own image as a champion for sustainability in order to protect himself against the growing backlash against the asbestos industry that he faced after taking over Eternit. “Yale’s deeply defective gift policy directly contributed to thousands of deaths Schmidheiny caused and which are still occurring around the world,” AFeVA wrote in a letter to Yale last October.
Prato said the group also wants Schmidheiny to make donations to improve research on mesothelioma and other lung diseases as a way to restore justice to victims.
Yale Vice Provost Susan Gibbons declined to say whether Schmidheiny’s recent conviction would change Yale’s decision.
In a 2013 letter to a lawyer representing the people of Cassale, Yale Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews wrote that while Eternit’s role in manufacturing asbestos products was “well known” at the time the honorary degree was conferred, it was also “well known” that Schmidheiny had “chosen to devote himself to crucial environmental issues.”
“It’s been very difficult for Yale to admit that it made a mistake,” said Laura D’Amico, a lawyer representing AFeVA.
Others assert that Schmidheiny is simply a scapegoat for the actions of his predecessors at Eternit, and that his commitment to sustainability in the later part of his career were genuine.
Schmidheiny’s reputation as a champion of sustainability came after he sold all his shares in Eternit in 1989, and subsequently initiated the establishment of the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which advocates for businesses to undertake sustainable actions.
Schmidheiny went on to fund or initiate various other groups dedicated to sustainable development, including Fundación Avina, a foundation promoting sustainability in Latin America. “Stephen very quickly realized that asbestos was a bad thing and began to get out of it in various ways,” said Lloyd Timberlake, a Yale alum who has worked with Schmidheiny and his multiple businesses.
The demands for Yale to cut ties with Schmidheiny is one of many examples of campaigns aimed at pressing universities to disallow wrong-doers the prestige of a university association.
Multiple universities, including Tufts University and Oxford University, have removed the Sackler name from campus buildings as a result of the Sackler family’s role in propelling the US opioid epidemic through sales of the addictive painkiller OxyContin. The Sackler family was investigated by the US Justice Department and forced to pay a $6 billion settlement to a trust meant for opioid addiction victims and their families.
In 2018, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and Notre Dame all revoked Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees after the actor was convicted of aggravated indecent assault.
Revoking Schmidheiny’s honorary degree “would be a very important signal” to the families affected by Eternit’s actions, said Prato.
(Featured image: The Gaths Mine, a now defunct asbestos mine in Mashava, Zimbabwe. Credit: Kevin Walsh)