etienne toussant

New faculty spotlight: Etienne Toussaint



Current position: assistant professor, law

Degrees: bachelor’s mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; master’s environmental engineering, The Johns Hopkins University; J.D., Harvard Law School; LL.M. George Washington University Law School

What courses will you teach here at USofC Law? 

I will be teaching contracts, business associations, secured transactions and other business law and commercial law courses. I also plan to teach seminars on community economic development and law and political economy.  

What led you to a career in law and then into academia?

Growing up in the South Bronx, New York, I developed an early interest in urban development. I studied mechanical engineering at MIT to learn how to build machines and bridges, but after discovering global poverty in Brazil and South Africa during a semester abroad, I yearned to build bridges that might address the social and economic divides that plague impoverished communities. After graduating from MIT, I enrolled in an interdisciplinary environmental engineering graduate program at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on environmental management and energy economics. My role as graduate adviser of Engineers Without Borders allowed me to return to South Africa to help build sustainable irrigation systems for subsistence farmers. But a graduate class in environmental policy revealed the important role lawyers play in shaping the meaning of globalization and sustainability. After a brief stint in consulting, I transitioned to Harvard Law School to learn how engineers can leverage law to promote positive social change.

I spent several years after graduation in transactional law practice to strengthen my lawyering skills. Then as a law and policy fellow with the Poverty and Race Research Action Counsel, I drafted policy briefs, regulatory comment letters, and research articles on fair housing issues, both locally and at the federal level. In both instances, my love for legal research and writing, coupled with my passion for collaborative learning, pointed toward academia as an excellent venue to fuse my interests. I hope to encourage my students to critique the normative underpinnings of law and brainstorm opportunities for progressive social change.

What attracted you to the University of South Carolina? 

During a visit to Columbia for a conference at the law school in October 2018, I found the faculty and students to be collegial and collaborative. Even more, there was a palpable passion for social justice — for example, I discovered students debating the nuances of legal doctrine and human rights. Since that conference, I have remained impressed by the law school’s commitment to innovative legal scholarship. Even more, the faculty’s commitment to preparing lawyer-leaders who serve their communities with excellence is inspirational. On a personal note, my spouse is a Beaufort, South Carolina native and an alumna of the University of South Carolina. We are excited about the opportunity to raise our children near family.

What was your dissertation and how has your research or scholarship evolved since then?

During my fellowship at GW Law School, I began a study of community economic development in the United States by exploring the legal dimensions of social impact investing as a solution to poverty. As a fellow, in 2016, I published an article in the ABA Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law assessing the D.C. Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program Act of 2015. That law seeks to economically empower those returning to society from prison. Specifically, the article considers the social impact bond model of investing as a possible source of funding for the program — looking at benefits of the financial tool and identifying key challenges.

My scholarship has evolved to not only investigate community economic development, but also environmental and energy justice, contract law, legal ethics, and legal history. My current work-in-progress in community economic development delves deeper into the issue of housing evictions in the United States through the lens of mental health and mental health care access. This is a collaborative project with my spouse, Ebony Toussaint, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Arnold School of Public Health, Rural and Minority Health Research Center. This project will explore the psychological and physiological trauma experienced by individuals who are evicted in both urban and rural areas across South Carolina. 

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I am most looking forward to getting to know my colleagues and students inside and outside the classroom and to working with them to help the greater Columbia community. My passion is community economic development and public service. I hope to join forces with local organizations committed to social and economic justice for marginalized community members. 

What do you hope to accomplish over the next five years?

In addition to settling our family into Columbia and getting involved in the local community, I look forward to building partnerships between the law school and other departments at the university, similar to my project with the public health school. For example, I also am interested in forging partnerships between the law school and the history and African American Studies departments to emphasize the historic role of law in addressing issues of racial justice and to attract more diverse students to our law school. I also hope to forge partnerships with our highly ranked business school to amplify our business law offerings.

What’s a talent you have or something that you’ve done that people might find surprising?

I enjoy camping and spending time in the outdoors. I was a Boy Scout in my youth and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. I also am a proud life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and performed in many step dancing shows during college.


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