Cole, who was wrongly convicted of rape, was pardoned in 2010.
Texas Tech University's Board of Regents voted Friday to award an honorary degree to Timothy Cole.
In 1985 Cole was expelled after another student accused him of rape. He was convicted the next year and died in prison in 1999. Ten years later, DNA evidence showed he was not the rapist, and Gov. Rick Perry posthumously pardoned him in 2010.
To receive an honorary degree, a faculty member, staff, students, administrators, current and former regents or alumni must nominate the potential recipient. Honors College associate dean Aliza Wong and Ricky Sherfield, the lead coordinator for the Cross Cultural Academic Advancement Center, nominated Cole at the end of last year. Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis then made a recommendation to the chancellor, who recommended it to the Board of Regents.
"Through no fault of his own, Timothy Cole did not realize the joyous moment of graduation and experience the rewards of earning a college degree," Nellis said. "In this bittersweet moment, we are proud to posthumously bestow this much deserved honorary degree in Law and Social Justice on Timothy and hope it lends to the long and difficult healing process the Cole family has endured."
The day was doubly special for Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert Duncan, who worked with Cole's family as a member of the Texas Senate.
"Timothy Cole's story was the inspiration for the Texas Legislature to make historic progress on compensation for those who had been wrongly convicted in our criminal justice system," Duncan said. "His incredible legacy is something that should never be forgotten."
Cole was exonerated after another man, Jerry Wayne Johnson, confessed to the rape while serving life in prison for another crime. After significant work from the Innocence Project of Texas, DNA testing proved Cole was innocent. In 2009 the Texas Legislature passed the Tim Cole Act, which increased the compensation people who have been wrongly imprisoned can get from the state, actually making Texas the most generous state in the nation. His case has led to numerous other legislative reforms as well and continues to influence legislation today.
Cory Session, Cole's younger brother and the policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas, said he appreciated the gesture from the university and all those who supported the process.
"We are grateful," he said. "It's been a quarter of a century, and we finally have justification for his education and his diploma. We are pleased."
The family will come to Lubbock for the ceremony in May, he said.
Former criminal investigator Fred McKinley, who wrote "A Plea for Justice: The Timothy Cole Story," also requested that the university consider granting Cole a degree. Monday was an emotional day for him.
"At this point it's more about the celebration of Tim Cole's life," McKinley said. "He wanted to be vindicated, exonerated and pardoned, and of course all those things came to pass.
"But his mother said she wished he'd gotten a degree, and this is a fulfillment of that process."
Cole's degree will be conferred May 15 at a ceremony at the Texas Tech School of Law.