That Stephan Schmidheiny has played a huge role in environmental matters around the world over the last 37 years is not up for debate.
What is hotly contested about the Swiss industrialist-turned-philanthropist and author is whether he's rightly portrayed as a hero or a villain. And Yale University, which gave Schmidheiny an honorary doctorate in 1996, is caught in the middle — with that degree as a global political football.
In 1976, when he was 29 years old, Schmidheiny took over the Swiss Eternit Group, a business founded by his grandfather. The company had become one of Europe's largest asbestos firms, making cement products girded with the deadly mineral throughout the continent and in Brazil. Schmidheiny was 29 and a newly minted lawyer.
Within 10 years, the Italian arm of the business, with five factories, closed in bankruptcy.
After leaving Eternit, Schmidheiny, born rich and growing richer through ties to Switzerland's best known companies, turned his attention to ecologically sustainable development. He created a charity and endowed it with more than $1 billion, launched a nonprofit foundation that operates in 17 Latin American countries and founded a global business group dedicated to private-sector environmentalism.
That was the Stephan Schmidheiny that Yale feted, and not just with an honorary degree. In 2000, Schmidheiny was a keynote speaker at the centennial of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which also published some of his writings.
But those early years running the Swiss Eternit Group have come back to haunt him.
In 2009, Schmidheiny, by then retired from active public life, was charged with creating an environmental disaster and failing to take protective measures in Turin, Italy — a criminal case that he did not attend. Experts testified that the company had caused nearly 3,000 deaths.
Schmidheiny was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
On June 3 of this year, an Italian appeals court upheld the environmental disaster charge against Schmidheiny, now 65, and upped the sentence to 18 years. Schmidheiny's lawyer vowed to appeal and beat back a conviction he calls "absurd."
Now the battle has reached Yale.
Asbestos victims and family members in the northern Italian city of Casale Monferrato, joined by others around the world, petitioned Yale on Sept. 25 to revoke the honorary degree — a move that would be unprecedented for Yale.
The university issued a statement in full support of Schmidheiny, and of its decision to confer the degree 17 years ago.
"Yale does not believe that the ongoing legal proceedings in Italy provide cause to reconsider" the honorary degree, spokesman Thomas Conroy said in an email.
Which picture is the real Stephan Schmidheiny? His accusers say — and the Italian courts agree — that he launched a coverup in 1976, when the dangers of asbestos were not fully known to the public. His defenders and his official biography claim he laid the groundwork for a cleanup and a transition away from the deadly industry soon after he took over the company.
If the university further investigates the case and Schmidheiny's life — as it should — it will find a remarkable story that raises questions about medical science, environmental law and politics, corporate responsibility, and, perhaps, the quest for redemption by a man who was born into a construction materials fortune and retired as an ecological philanthropist and author.
Glory And Death
After Eternit, Schmidheiny went on to become one of the world's leading advocates of sustainable development.
He founded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, espousing a sort of free-market environmentalism. He wrote pioneering works, including "Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment" in 1992, a bestseller in which he coined the term "eco-efficiency," timed to coincide with the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
His Avina Foundation, based in Panama, helps to save valuable, sensitive tracts of land as Latin American economies expand.