Thousands of workers at Eternit, a European cement and roofing company, have succumbed to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. As a result of this egregious loss of life, the owner of the company was found guilty of “causing an environmental disaster” and was sentenced to 16 years in Italian prison. Yet still, Yale University refuses to rescind an honorary degree it gave to the man for being “one of the world’s most environmentally conscious business leaders.”
Yale honored Stephan Schmidheiny with a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree in 1996. When bestowing the degree on the company’s owner, Yale said, “You have made company decisions based upon the health of the planet, introducing new technologies and ways of doing business that are environmentally friendly.”
As we reported in March, families of the victims and Yale alumni pleaded with the University to withdraw the degree saying, “It flies in the face of actual history.” Linda Reinstein, co-founder and President/CEO of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, also joined the cause. She sent a letter to Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s secretary and vice president for student life, urging the school to reconsider: “In the names of those we have buried, I urge you to listen to our plea and revoke Schmidheiny’s honorary award.”
After receiving the petitions, Yale stood strong in defense of Schmidheiny saying they have never revoked a degree and have no plans of doing so.
Now, the mayors of 35 Italian towns affected by the mesothelioma deaths are joining forces with the families in renewing their call to strip Schmidheiny of the degree. According to an Aug. 1 article in the New Haven Register, the group sent a letter to Yale President, Peter Salovey.
“The town of Casale Monferrato and 34 municipalities … join in asking you to rescind the honorary degree awarded to Mr. Stephan Schmidheiny in 1996,” said the Mayor of Casale Monferrato, author of the letter, according to the article. “We consider it unacceptable that a criminal such as he is, a man who has shown no respect for human life, should be allowed to continue to bear the sign of your appreciation and honor.”
Yale continues to stand by their 1996 decision, and March statement, insisting that Schmidheiny’s record at that time reflected him as “a philanthropist and environmentalist.”
“Yale does not currently believe that ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider the judgment made by the committee in 1996,” said Karen Peart, deputy university press secretary, in response to the letter.
Although, as a rule, universities rarely rescind honorary degrees, it is not unprecedented. In fact, Tufts University rescinded a 2006 honorary doctorate bestowed on Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who fell from grace after being found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. The University board said that Lance Armstrong’s “actions as an athlete are inconsistent with the values of the university,” according to the Huffington Post.
The only known cause of mesothelioma is through inhalation or ingestion of airborne asbestos fibers. The fibers become lodged in the lining of the chest or abdomen, where, over the years, they begin to irritate the tissue leading to cancer. It can take up to 60 years for a person who was exposed to exhibit symptoms.
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