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A Push to Award a Degree to a Symbol of Injustice

Texas Tech University expelled Tim Cole after he was arrested in 1985 and charged with rape. Cole died in prison, but DNA evidence cleared the way for a posthumous pardon in 2009. Now there's a push for Tech to award Cole an honorary degree.

Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis were among those attending the unveiling of a statue of Timothy Cole at a Lubbock park on Sept. 17, 2014. Cole was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1985 and died in prison in 1999. He was posthumously exonerated in 2009.

Less than two months before Election Day, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor sat together in a Lubbock park, speaking without any partisan bickering. There was only agreement that Timothy Brian Cole was worth remembering.

Cole died in prison of complications from asthma in December 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit.

The candidates were attending the dedication of the park in Cole’s honor and the unveiling of a 13-foot statue of  Cole. The memorial joined others, including a marker at his gravesite, a scholarship in his name at the Texas Tech University School of Law and a 2009 piece of legislation called the Tim Cole Act that increased compensation for wrongfully convicted individuals.

Pressure is mounting to approve one more memorial: an honorary degree from Texas Tech, which expelled Cole after he was arrested in 1985 and charged with raping a fellow student. He was convicted the following year.

Texas Tech officials have resisted previous requests for an honorary degree, citing a lack of achievement. But proponents say Cole accomplished more in death than most people ever do in life.

Cole was exonerated in 2009 after a review of DNA evidence had confirmed that Jerry Wayne Johnson, who had confessed to the crime, was the culprit. He is serving life in prison for unrelated charges. In 2010, Gov. Rick Perry granted Cole a posthumous pardon, the first of its kind in Texas.

According to Cory Session, Cole’s younger brother, their mother, Ruby Cole Session, had hoped Cole would receive a posthumous degree. She died in 2013.

“It was something my mother wanted for Tim, because on his road of life, that was something he would have obtained,” said Session, who works as the policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas, which had investigated Cole’s case.

The effort to get an honorary degree for Cole is now being led by Fred McKinley, the author of A Plea for Justice: The Timothy Cole Story, which was published in 2010. McKinley, a former criminal investigator in the Louisiana attorney general’s office, had become captivated by the case after he retired, moved to Texas, and heard about it on the local news in 2009. In November, McKinley started an online petition, which has collected more than 12,500 signatures

“Who is it going to hurt to grant a posthumous honorary degree to Tim Cole?” he said.

In 2011, McKinley appealed to Kent Hance, then the Texas Tech University System chancellor, to consider it. Ben Lock, the chancellor’s executive assistant, said the matter had been reviewed by the university president’s office, which determined that “it would not be appropriate.”

A posthumous degree, Lock wrote, could only be granted when the recipient had completed most of the coursework, which Cole had not. And a candidate for an honorary doctorate had to be evaluated based on “scholarly, creative, professional, service or occupational achievements.”

“There is no denying that  Cole’s wrongful conviction and subsequent death while in prison was truly tragic,” Lock wrote, “but unfortunately, those circumstances would not be the basis for the award of an honorary degree under the board’s policies.”

In the nearly three decades since Cole was expelled, Texas Tech has granted 21 honorary doctorates. Among the recipients are Queen Noor of Jordan, former Gov. Dolph Briscoe and, most recently, Wayne Isom, a noted cardiac surgeon.

Some people associated with Cole’s case feel that the efforts on his behalf would be better spent on addressing criminal justice reform.

“I’m always worried that the more Tim Cole becomes a memorialized symbol, the less people will think about what we really need to do to fix the system in Texas,” said Jeff Blackburn, the founder of the Innocence Project of Texas and the lawyer who secured Cole’s exoneration.

While he had no objection to honoring Cole with a degree, Blackburn said, “it does make me think about how much energy people are willing to put into something that’s past and how little energy they’re willing to put into the scary stuff, which is changing the system going forward.”

Changes in leadership at Texas Tech could alter the equation.

This year, Robert Duncan was appointed chancellor. He spent most of the last two decades serving in the Texas Senate, where he sponsored the Tim Cole Act.

The system’s rules for granting honorary degrees call for nominations, which may be made to the president’s office by nearly anyone associated with the university, to be reviewed by a panel that includes faculty, administrators and students. Duncan said the faculty input would be particularly important in evaluating Cole’s case, if it is put to such a committee.

“If the faculty decided to do that, it would certainly be a good thing,” Duncan said. “If they had other reasons not to, I would defer to their judgment on this. The conferring of an honorary degree should be a matter of the highest scrutiny.”

The Texas Tech president considers the panel’s recommendation and notifies the chancellor of a decision, which the board of regents must approve. The discussions are supposed to be kept confidential.

Duane Nellis, who became the university’s president last year, remained tight-lipped about whether the matter was being considered.

“Timothy Cole endured an unimaginable circumstance, and his family has worked diligently and admirably on his behalf,” Nellis said in a statement. “The university has a process in place to thoroughly and respectfully review all requests for honorary degrees.”

Because of the confidentiality requirements, Duncan said he did not know if any evaluation of the proposal was underway, nor could he predict the outcome.

“I can only say that Tim Cole was a brave young man,” Duncan said. “His bravery and principle in not admitting guilt when he didn’t have any was certainly exemplary and was an inspiration that helped pass major legislation that has helped a lot of men and women who were wrongfully incarcerated.”

Session remains optimistic. Borrowing a line Cole wrote to their sister from prison — “I still believe in the justice system, even though it doesn’t believe in me” — Session said, “We still believe in Texas Tech, even though it didn’t believe in Timothy.”

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