A foundation controlled by Stephan Schmidheiny, the billionaire global environmentalist whose 1996 honorary degree from Yale University is under protest, donated money to Yale at least three times in the mid-1990s, documents show.
Those donations — in unknown amounts — are raising eyebrows among supporters of former asbestos workers in Casale Monferrato, Italy. The workers and their family members say Yale should not have feted Schmidheiny 18 years ago and should revoke the degree, now that an Italian appeals court has upheld a criminal conviction of the former industrialist and sentenced him to 18 years in prison.
At least two of the donations were to the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, then headed by Daniel C. Esty — a Yale professor now serving as Connecticut's Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner.
Schmidheiny from 1976 to 1986 controlled Swiss Eternit, a producer of asbestos-girded construction products with several plants in Italy. He exited the 80-year-old family business and dedicated his efforts and much of his fortune to advancing ecologically sustainable business methods, especially land use in Latin America — for which Yale conferred the honorary degree.
But in 2012, Schmidheiny was convicted by an Italian court of creating an environmental disaster that claimed the lives of at least 2,000 people, a ruling upheld last June by an appellate court. The main case against Schmidheiny is that he knew the dangers of asbestos and although he installed some safety measures, his company failed to warn workers and local officials.
Schmidheiny's lawyer and his spokesman said the case, which he is appealing to Italy's highest court, is a "sham" that disregards the facts.
Yale said in October, after the victims' group presented a petition calling for Yale to revoke the degree, that "there are no records of any substantial gifts to Yale" by Schmidheiny or by charities that Schmidheiny controlled. Yale did, however, describe collaborations between Schmidheiny and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where Esty's center was jointly located.
Press releases from the center show that the Avina Foundation, founded by Schmidheiny, gave "major project support" to a conference in September 1996, and again to a book published by Yale, announced in December 1997. The conference and the book were both part of Yale's two-year reform effort titled "The Next Generation Project," designed to spark a wave of creative thinking about environmental issues after the 25-year period that had been jump-started by Earth Day 1970 and the sweeping environmental laws in the United States and elsewhere.
The press releases, each citing seven or eight institutional funders, were presented to Yale last month by Christopher Meisenkothen, a New Haven lawyer who specializes in asbestos cases and represents the Eternit victims group.
Esty said Friday that he did not recall how much Avina donated, but that it was probably "in the tens of thousands of dollars," perhaps $20,000 to $50,000 for each of the projects.
Do those qualify as "substantial gifts" to Yale? Not necessarily, for an institution with an endowment in the $25 billion range, where seven-figure gifts are routine. And of course, Yale rejects any connection between donations, which are common, and honorary degrees, which are conferred in very small numbers every year.
After Meisenkothen presented the press releases to Yale, seeking more information, the university secretary responded by saying her earlier comments to him — that Yale had not received any gifts from Schmidheiny or Avina at all — were based on a search of electronic files. A later search unearthed a 1995 grant related to sustainable development in Latin America, not the grants mentioned in the press releases, "but we do not doubt that it was received," university Secretary Kimberly M. Goff-Crews wrote to Meisenkothen.
A Yale spokesman said the donations would not be considered significant, and for details referred to the letter from Goff-Crews to Meisenkothen.
It should be clear here that Esty was not involved in Yale's response about the donations and is not accused of any wrongdoing in connection with the donations.
As for Yale, it's either reassuring or disconcerting to hear that even the great university struggles with such housekeeping items as donations in the $50,000 range from major foundations, not in the Civil War era but in the 1990s.
The broader issue here is what, if anything, Yale ought to do about Stephan Schmidheiny's honorary degree now that the Italian courts have come down harshly on Schmidheiny's past. Yale might do itself a service by convening a faculty committee to look into Schmidheiny's history while the Italian supreme court hears the appeal, or at least afterward.
Nothing doing, Yale says: Schmidheiny's involvement in the industry was well known at the time of the honorary degree, and the facts don't justify a new look. Some people credit Schmidheiny for exiting the asbestos industry when he did, in fact.
Esty, who met with Schmidheiny and co-edited the "Next Generation" book, in which Schmidheiny co-wrote a chapter, is firmly in that camp. He describes Schmidheiny, a lawyer by training, as "low-key" and "thoughtful, intellectual."
"Stephan Schmidheiny is one of the leading environmental lights of the 20th century," Esty said.
He especially credited Schmidheiny with mobilizing corporations in advance of the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sustainability, Esty said, "was very much not standard thinking in the late '80s and early '90s."
Esty said Schmidheiny's book, "Changing Course," was critical to environmental thinking. "There's not a company out there that hasn't had its current framework of understanding about how to handle environmental issues" affected by Schmidheiny, Esty said.
Esty himself, formerly a Bush Administration official, has long been a leader in tying corporate activities to sustainable practices.
As for the Italian case, Esty said, "I haven't ... followed this in detail except that one wants to be very careful given the demonstrated weakness of the Italian justice system." He referred to a case in which scientists were convicted for failing to predict an earthquake.
Yale isn't budging on its own. If anything is going to happen on the Schmidheiny case at it will have to come from faculty pressure. There's not much of that so far, but at least one, Thomas Pogge, Leitner professor of philosophy and international affairs, is on record calling for a committee.
Read The Haar Report at http://www.courant.com/haar.