Kevin Richardson Will Receive Historic Honorary Degree

Kevin Richardson, a member of the Exonerated Five, will become the first honorary undergraduate degree recipient in Syracuse University history. The honor was announced by Chancellor Kent Syverud during the University’s Virtual Coming Back Together reunion for Black and Latino/a alumni on Oct. 16. “While a very young man, you were tested in ways no one should be tested. Your response has been to approach the world with wisdom, compassion and activism,” said Syverud. “I warmly welcome you to the Orange family, where your example inspires us all.”

Richardson, one of five teenagers wrongly convicted and sentenced in the highly publicized Central Park jogger rape case, had his eye on Syracuse University prior to being arrested when he was only 14. He earned an associate degree while in prison, but always wanted a bachelor’s degree. “Kevin imagined himself as a student here playing in the marching band but missed that opportunity because he was in prison,” says Rachel Vassel ’91, assistant vice president of multicultural advancement. “He would have been a member of the class of 1996.”

Syracuse University will confer Richardson with a bachelor of fine arts degree in music at the next in-person Commencement.  The honor “is surreal,” he says. “This means the world to me after all my trials and tribulations. Thank you to everyone for believing in me. I will do you all proud.”

The announcement was the culmination of more than a year of efforts on the part of Syracuse University students, alumni, faculty and staff that was ignited by an interview the Exonerated Five gave to Oprah as a conclusion to the Netflix series “When They See Us.” Oprah asked each of the men about their aspirations as teenagers before their arrest. Without hesitation, Richardson said he’d dreamed of playing trumpet at Syracuse University. “Almost immediately, my phone and email began blowing up,” says Vassel. “Our Black and Brown alumni and students wanted to do something to help rectify a wrong.”

Richardson was invited to campus in September 2019. During that visit he participated in a panel discussion on Justice in America, which was attended by 900 students and faculty. At a reception hosted by the Office of Multicultural Advancement, Richardson was honored with the surprise announcement of the creation of the Our Time Has Come Kevin Richardson Scholarship, launched with a lead gift from Tara Brown Favors ’95. “I felt that visit was going to be the first step in a longer relationship between Kevin and our campus community,” says Vassel.

Across campus, Richardson made a big impression. “His unique insights on resilience, perseverance, activism, and community made a positive impact on the campus community,” says Justine Hastings ’20, an Our Time Has Come Scholar and Student Association president.

Hastings was one of at least two students who initiated efforts to have Syracuse recognize Richardson with an honorary degree. Shortly after the Oprah interview, Jalen Nash ’20, started an online petition that received thousands of student signatures. Hastings went through the process of submitting a formal nomination to the University Senate’s Honorary Degree Committee. “I am deeply grateful to all who joined in the process of recognizing Kevin Richardson for this well-deserved honor,” says Chancellor Syverud.

Honorary degrees recognize individuals who have made exceptional and notable contributions to the institution or the broader society. Since his exoneration, Richardson has been an advocate for criminal justice reform, working with The Innocence Project on criminal justice reform and efforts to better the lives of individuals released from prison.

Vassel says the announcement of Richardson’s honorary degree was not only the highlight of the Virtual CBT reunion, but of a very difficult year. “For many alumni, this  honorary degree is a point of pride,” she says. “The opportunity to formally welcome Kevin to the Orange family with the degree he was tragically prevented from earning is incredibly meaningful. And we are so grateful to everyone who has chosen to honor Mr. Richardson by making a contribution to the Our Time Has Come Kevin Richardson Scholarship.”