Letter asks Yale to revoke honors to Cosby, industrialist
NEW HAVEN — A group of 30 alumni is asking Yale University President Peter Salovey and the Yale Corporation to apply the same principles that led to the renaming of Calhoun College to “re-evaluate the honorary degrees” given to a Swiss billionaire industrialist and to comedian Bill Cosby.
A letter was to be sent to Salovey and the trustees on Thursday, but was released Wednesday.
Stephan Ernst Schmidheiny, 70, was convicted by an Italian court in 2012 for his responsibility in the deaths of more than 2,000 people from mesothelioma, asbestosis and other diseases caused by asbestos from four factories his company, Eternit AG, owned in Italy.
His 16-year sentence was increased to 18 years, with fines approaching $15 billion, but an Italian appeals court overturned the verdict on the grounds that the 10-year statute of limitations had run out. Eternit had ceased its involvement in asbestos in 1986, according to Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant in the case. Still, there is one asbestos-related death per week in Casale Monferrato, the most affected town, Castleman said.
But, more recently, “the magistrate ruled that there will be a separate manslaughter trial in each of the four areas of Italy where these deaths occurred,” Castleman said. Schmidheiny, who has focused on philanthropy in recent years, will first be tried in Turin on two counts of manslaughter. The trial is scheduled to begin April 26.
Schmidheiny received his honorary degree from Yale in 1996, the same year that Brazil awarded him the National Order of the Southern Cross. Mayors of 35 Italian towns and dozens of alumni previously have appealed to Salovey to revoke his degree.
Cosby, 80, who received his honorary degree from Yale in 2003, is on trial in Pennsylvania on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and has been accused by more than 50 women of rape or other forms of sexual misconduct.
Salovey, after first deciding not to rename Calhoun College despite protests that John C. Calhoun was an ardent and vocal supporter of slavery, in 2015 formed a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. The letter to Salovey summed up the resulting principles by asking, “Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university?” and “Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?”
Based on the committee’s report, Calhoun College was renamed for Grace Hopper, an admiral, computer scientist and mathematician who had received master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale.
“We ought to look at this issue of Schmidheiny the same as they looked at the issue of Calhoun College,” said Daniel Berman of Davis, California, a 1964 Yale graduate and lead signer of the letter. “It’s an outrage for Yale to give a degree to a person who ran a murderous business.”
Berman said of Cosby, “either he’ll be found guilty or not guilty but other universities … have already withdrawn their honorary degrees to Cosby. … Schmidheiny is much more outrageous. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people.”
On April 6, Ohio State University became at least the 20th university to rescind an honorary degree given to Cosby, out of more than 60 he’s received. Others that have revoked the honor include Brown University, the University of Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’m concerned about Cosby,” Berman said. “People understand Cosby because it’s an American thing … and it’s important. You’re not supposed to get someone loaded and then have sex with them.”
Berman said he and two other Yale alumni met in 2014 with Yale Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews about the issue. “She just said we don’t reconsider awards,” he said.
Yale Press Secretary Thomas Conroy did not respond to a request for comment.