Yale Rejects Bid To Rescind Honorary Degree

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Chris Meisenkothen
Chris Meisenkothen

An organization representing victims of asbestos exposure was appalled after last year's conviction in an Italian court of a Swiss billionaire accused of creating an environmental disaster that led to thousands of people dying from asbestos-related illnesses.

The organization was so angry it hired a Connecticut lawyer to turn urge Yale University to rescind an honorary degree the Ivy League school had given to the billionaire, Stephan Schmidheiny, in 1996. After more than two months, Yale finally responded to the request—and it didn't offer the answer the group wanted to hear.

Though appeals are pending in Italian court, Schmidheiny may one day serve at least 16 years in prison for his part in the public health tragedy. But at least he'll get to keep his honorary degree from Yale.

In a letter to the Italy-based Asbestos Victims and Relatives Association, school officials said in December that they would not rescind Schmidheiny's honorary degree.

"As you know, the revocation of an honorary degree would be unprecedented at Yale, and we do not believe that the events subsequent to the award of the degree call into question the essential information upon which [Yale] acted," wrote Kimberly Goff-Crews, secretary and vice-president for student life at Yale.

The letter was sent to Christopher Meisenkothen of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen in New Haven, who has handled asbestos-related litigation for plaintiffs across the U.S. and agreed to represent the Italian victims group pro bono in this matter.

Meisenkothen's initial five-page letter asking Yale to rescind the honorary degree was sent in early October.

"We're really very disappointed in Yale's response," Meisenkothen told the Law Tribune. "Yale doesn't address the Italian legal proceedings and the significant historical evidence that was revealed during the trial. I think Yale is snubbing the Italian system and tacitly joining Schmidheiny's defenders who have attacked the Italian justice system."

Meisenkothen noted that there is no viable legal action the group can take against Yale. However, he said the Italian group is pursuing other options.

"We're optimistic that some interested Yale professors may also speak out soon, and we're talking with some state and national labor and union groups to try to rally some additional support," Meisenkothen said.

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