Barry Castleman on Yale’s Refusal to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny’s Honorary Degree

Up until 2018, Yale University stood by its policy of never revoking honorary degrees.

Barry Castleman presents Italian prosecutor Raffaele Guarniniello Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization award for Lifetime Achievement in Prosecution of Toxic Corporate Crime, 2015

Then came comedian Bill Cosby, convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a Temple University employee in his home.

“The Yale University board of trustees voted to rescind the honorary degree awarded to William H. Cosby Jr. in 2003,” the university said in a statement in May 2018. “The decision is based on a court record providing clear and convincing evidence  of conduct that violates fundamental standards of decency shared by all members of the Yale community, conduct that was unknown to the board at the time the degree was awarded. The board took this decision following Mr. Cosby’s criminal conviction after he was afforded due process.”

“Yale is committed to both the elimination of sexual misconduct and the adherence to due process. We reaffirm that commitment with our action today.”

It was the first time in Yale’s 300 year history that an honorary degree was rescinded.

Now come the victims of Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny.

Ten years ago, hundreds of asbestos victims from Italy called on Yale to rescind an honorary degree given to Schmidheiny in 1996.

In 2012, Schmidheiny was convicted in Italy of causing the deaths of 3,000 Italians in the area of the town of Casale Monferrato, a conviction that was later thrown out on appeal after the defense made the argument that the prosecution was barred by the statute of limitations.

Yale stood by the honorary degree.

Now Schmidheiny is facing another criminal prosecution for the deaths of Italians – with a verdict due within weeks.

The victims want Yale not only rescind the honorary degree, but to return money given to Yale by Schmidheiny affiliated foundations.

In an October 2022 letter to Yale, an association of victims from the Casale Monferrato region called on Yale to return the donations and revoke the honorary degree. 

“Our community, Casale Monferrato, in northern Italy, has been decimated by the pollution from a giant asbestos cement products manufacturing plant that operated almost 80 years and closed suddenly in 1986,” they wrote. “The Chief Executive Officer of the Eternit multinational enterprise starting in 1976 was young Stephan Schmidheiny, whose family partially owned Eternit.” 

“In the 1980s, Italian prosecutors had charged Italian Eternit executives with creating an environmental disaster causing the deaths of thousands and thousands of residents and employees in the town and neighboring municipalities.” 

“As it became clear that Schmidheiny himself could be charged, and countries started banning asbestos, the asbestos billionaire sold and closed asbestos plants and mines all over the world and since then skillfully and stubbornly desperately sought rebranding. He donated to conservation groups in Brazil.” 

“He became one of Chile’s largest owners of forest properties after the indigenous Mapuche people were driven off by Pinochet’s laws destroying their communal existence.” He published the book, Changing Course in 1992, as chairman of the newly announced Business Council for Sustainable Development, proclaiming: ‘We are committed to sustainable development, to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the welfare of future generations.’” 

“The one thing Schmidheiny did not do is to make even the slightest effort to clean up the very heavy asbestos contamination his plants had left behind in Casale Monferrato and other locations. Schmidheiny attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and he cultivated relationships with former US Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly and Yale law school alumnus – later 

Yale environmental law professor – James Gustave Speth, whose endorsement of his book was printed on the back cover.” 

“Along with Yale alumnus and environmental lawyer Frances Beinecke, whose family’s philanthropy is memorialized in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Reilly and Speth prevailed in getting Yale to grant Schmidheiny an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1996.” 

“Yale honored Schmidheiny specifically for his ‘stewardship of the global environment’ as ‘one of the world’s most environmentally conscious business leaders.’ Schmidheiny’s Avina Foundation’s financial contributions to some Yale programs on sustainable development were acknowledged in press releases at the time.” 

“When closing down his dangerous plants in the 1980s, multi-billionaire Schmidheiny faced a very serious, very obvious question: am I going to spend money on making these sites safer or am I just going to abandon them as they are, exposing the local populations to horrendous health risks?” 

“At that time, and at every moment thereafter, he made a deliberate choice against doing the responsible thing, against cleaning up the mess from which his family had earned a vast fortune, and in favor of greenwashing, in favor of buying himself a reputation as an environmentalist.” 

“Perhaps he made this decision because it was cheaper. But he was probably even more strongly influenced by the nature of the two paths –  the lack of cleanup of contaminated sites in some Italian towns and in other countries versus rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty at Yale and in Brazil.” 

“He chose the latter course, unsurprisingly. But he could easily have done both. He didn’t do both because he felt that his bought reputation as a global steward of the environment protected him from having to clean up his mess.” 

“In this way, Yale’s deeply defective gift policy directly contributed to thousands of deaths Schmidheiny caused and which are still occurring around the world. Yale sold Schmidheiny a comfortable escape from his responsibility to the people of Casale Monferrato and the other devastated communities.” 

“These communities were sold out not merely by Stephan Schmidheiny, but also by Yale.” 

“Starting in 2013, the town of Casale was joined by Yale alumni in a campaign to get Yale to rescind its honorary degree to Stephan Schmidheiny. In 2014, the Court of Cassation overturned his conviction on grounds that the crime of creating an environmental disaster had a statute of limitations that lapsed ten years after Eternit closed and declared bankruptcy in Italy in 1986.” 

“We are writing to ask that Yale rescind the honorary degree awarded to Schmidheiny and return all of his gifts from the 1990s to the present having seen the new information available.”

“This is an extreme case of Yale being used by an unscrupulous and insensitive business man – insensitive to basic rights to life, to health and to the environment desperately seeking to buy respectability and present himself as an environmental philanthropist who couldn’t possibly be so greedy that he would sacrifice thousands of our people and run a cover-up that the Court of Appeals said delayed Italy’s ban on asbestos by ten years.” 

“If this test case of a man who blatantly despises life and the environment does not justify application of the new Yale policy on returning blood money from people whose fortunes came from undisclosed crimes against humanity, then the new Yale policy is just a facade.”

“The uniquely Italian prosecution of toxic corporate crime provides Yale with the means to recognize and make amends for its errors in accepting his gifts and continuing to bestow honors on Stephan Schmidheiny.” 

“People in our country reading about Yale’s connection with Schmidheiny will also be interested in seeing what Yale does, too counting on the principles which have always inspired your institution. Schmidheiny has spent over $100 million here on lawyers delaying trials and appealing convictions. We can’t help but wonder how much he gave to Yale.”

Yale refuses to respond to the victims’ letter. 

When asked by Corporate Crime Reporter whether Yale would revoke the honorary degree to Schmidheiny and return the funds, Yale spokesperson Karen Peart wrote:

“Yale awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Stephan Schmidheiny for his advocacy of sustainable economic growth and development. The decision to award this degree was made by a committee in 1996.”

Yes, but what about the letter from the victims calling on Yale to revoke the degree and return the money?

No response from Peart.

Barry Castleman is an expert on asbestos related disease and has worked closely with the Casale Monferrato victims and prosecutors bringing the cases against Schmidheiny in Italy.

“Schmidheiny saw these criminal prosecutions coming for him in the 1990s and he decided to rebrand himself as an environmental businessman of all things,” Castleman told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “He started giving money to conservation groups in Brazil. He gave 20 million Swiss francs to help hold the Earth Summit. He buddied up with Bill Reilly, who was the head of the EPA in the first Bush presidency. Reilly was an old Yalie and brought up his name to get an honorary degree at Yale.”

“In Brazil, they gave him the order of the Southern Cross, which is the highest honor the government of Brazil can pay to a foreigner. This was because of his donations to conservation groups.”

He got his honorary degree from Yale in 1996. And when did his foundation make a donation?

“Right at that time. His Avina Foundation was credited in a press release by Yale for giving money for various seminars and programs they had on sustainable development.” 

How much money did the foundation give?

“That’s what we don’t know. Yale has a $41 billion endowment that is a complete secret. Nobody knows where any of that money comes from unless Yale chooses to disclose it.”

His foundation could have given $100. We don’t know how much money he gave?

“That’s right. We started a campaign at the insistence of the people in Casale in 2013 to get Yale to take back the honorary degree. And Yale has absolutely refused. They characterize Schmidheiny as a philanthropist well known in the budding field of sustainable development – that kind of thing.” 

“Nobody knows how much money the foundations gave. He was well connected. He had William Reilly recommending him. He also had Gus Speth and Frances Beineke, well known environmental lawyers associated with Yale. Beineke’s family gave so much money to Yale over the years that they have a library named after them on the Yale campus.”

Speth and Beineke are considered liberal environmentalists. Have you approached them?

“Yes. Neither one of them has responded over the years.”

The last article we wrote about this in 2013 was with you and the victims calling on Yale to revoke the honorary degree. They never responded. Now in a new letter to Yale, the victims are calling on Yale to return the money under a new gift return policy.

“The story there is that Yale had a donor scandal in 2021. A couple of very wealthy donors gave them $250 million, the largest individual gift they had ever received. And the donors gave it to support the Yale Grand Strategy Program. The people who gave the money wanted to talk about the use of power in the world.” 

“They were establishment figures. The Professor who was running the program, Beverly Gage, decided she also wanted to invite people who were from non governmental organizations or activist groups to talk about public policy and how it needs to be formed.”

“The donors objected and brought it to Yale’s attention. The contract gave the donors the right to name the people who were going to carry out the program. The professor was caught in the middle. And she went to the administration and asked – what about academic freedom? And they said – sorry, that’s what it says in the contract. And she quit the program. This was reported in the New York Times. That was in September 2021.”

“In response, Yale referred this to a committee of lawyers and faculty. And the committee came up with guidelines on the return of gifts. The guidelines said among other things that gifts will not be accepted if the university determines that the gift is made for the primary purpose of personally benefitting the donor.”

“With the rebranding of Schmidheiny, that seems to fit this case. Schmidheiny had no other connection to Yale. He never went to Yale. The only time he showed up there was when he got the honorary degree.”

The victims are now saying – under this new policy, you should give the money back to Schmidheiny’s foundation?

“Yes. And the policy has a section called return of gifts.” 

Have any gifts been returned?

“I don’t know. The amazing thing is that Yale has refused to respond to the victims’ letter asking that the money be returned. Just no response. There was a letter of support sent by nineteen Yale alumni led by a medical expert on asbestos in the United States. Yale has simply not responded to either of those letters. And they were sent in October 2022.”

“This has been going on for ten years now. One of the things they told us initially is that they have never taken back an honorary degree and they have been giving honorary degrees since the 1700s. And then Bill Cosby got nailed for sexual assault and they took his honorary degree back in a heartbeat. At the time, we asked – why are you taking back Bill Cosby’s honorary degree but not a man whose business resulted in the deaths of people?”

Have you ever met Schmidheiny?


Have you been to Casale Monferrato?

“Many times. I testified there at the request of the people of Casale in 2010 at the first criminal trial. I was testifying about how the big asbestos companies were sharing information at the time Schmidheiny became the CEO, including his own knowledge. He was aware of the fact that much more stringent regulations were moving forward in the United States. Sweden was about to ban asbestos cement sheets and pipes because of pressure from the unions there.” 

Were there civil cases in Italy?

“There were interim civil damages ordered to be paid in the first conviction, but they were thrown out when the case was overturned on statute of limitations grounds.”

There is no tort system there?

“Nothing like what we have here certainly. But our tort system is unique in the world.” 

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Barry Castleman, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 21(12), May 22, 2023, print edition only.]

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