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Franita Tolson Named USC Gould School of Law Dean

Chinyere Cindy Amobi (USC Today) • March 27, 2024
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Interim Dean and Professor Franita Tolson has been named the dean and Carl Mason Franklin Chair in Law of the USC Gould School of Law. Tolson is a nationally recognized thought leader and dialogue shaper in election law, voting rights, constitutional law and legal history with research and insights appearing in leading law reviews and major media publications across the country.

“I feel inspired and excited for this opportunity,” Tolson said. “Our law school is a tapestry of talent, and I look forward to working together with the entire Gould Trojan Family to carry on its legacy of innovation and achievement. I’m honored to lead and serve this outstanding, collaborative scholarly community, which I believe is unmatched by any other.”

She becomes the first Black dean and second female dean in the history of USC Gould, which is home to one of the most academically excellent and diverse student bodies of any law school in the nation.

“We are pleased to have Franita Tolson as the next dean of the USC Gould School of Law,” USC President Carol Folt said. “She is respected and beloved by Gould, and I cannot imagine a better person to lead the school into its next phase of excellence.”

Tolson has served as the interim dean at USC Gould, where she held the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Chair in Law, since 2023. Before that, she was the law school’s vice dean for faculty and academic affairs from 2019 to 2022.

“During her tenure as interim dean, she promoted a culture of openness, understanding and respect,” Folt said. “She has a strong student-centered, inclusive focus and a deep appreciation for all areas of the law school, and is nationally recognized for her scholarship in election law, constitutional law and voting rights and access. We know she will continue to lead the school to even greater heights.”

Before coming to USC in 2017, Tolson was the Betty T. Ferguson Professor of Voting Rights at Florida State University, eventually becoming just the second Black woman to be promoted to associate professor with tenure at the law school in 2014.

New USC Gould dean: Cultivating a culture of inclusivity

As vice dean of USC Gould, Tolson displayed critical leadership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, aiding the law school’s efforts to ensure the community’s health and safety while sustaining its educational and research mission. Tolson also co-chaired the academic affairs subcommittee that developed the law school’s “Race, Racism and the Law” course, a first-of-its-kind required course among top law schools nationwide. She helped launch USC Gould’s new visiting assistant professor program, which aims to create a pipeline for new law faculty, including those from underrepresented backgrounds.

Tolson’s commitment to equality and accessibility is reflected in her research interests: She is considered to be one of the most recognizable and prominent scholars in election law and is frequently invited to write and speak about topics that will prove especially relevant as the country enters a new election cycle, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 14th and 15th amendments, gerrymandering and other constitutional issues.

Tolson said she gravitated toward election law and voting rights because of the paradox of exclusivity that lies at the center of American democracy. “There’s always been this ambition for America to be a model for the world in terms of our type of government and levels of participation, while many in this country actively work to exclude the most vulnerable from participating in that system,” she said. “I think this paradox keeps me interested — how can I help facilitate the best of us while pushing back against the worst of us?”

This question takes Tolson’s research as far back as the Reconstruction era of the late 1800s, when formerly enslaved African Americans gained citizenship and partial voting rights. She uses this period, which was followed by violent backlash and widespread disenfranchisement, as a framework for thinking through the legal and political implications of modern-day voting restrictions.

“I write about this because our politics will never be inclusive until we have hard conversations about the different pathologies that undermine our conception of who we are as a democracy,” she said.

Early notes of inspiration for new USC Gould dean

Tolson first became interested in a career in law as an undergraduate at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., where she earned a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree in history in 2001. After debating between going to law school and getting a doctorate in history, Tolson chose the University of Chicago Law School, where she took classes in constitutional law taught by then-Professor Barack Obama. “He managed to find this balance between making information accessible, while still communicating the complexities of doctrine,” she recalled.

Tolson said the experience would later inform her own teaching style, where she tries to help students understand that many issues they will encounter in law practice will fall in a gray area that defies easy explanation.

Post-graduation and prior to her career in academia, Tolson clerked for three years for Judge Rubén Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois and Judge Ann Claire Williams of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She then pivoted to teaching law, serving as a visiting assistant professor at the Northwestern University School of Law.

An important career shift

When USC Gould’s former dean — Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew T. Guzman — first approached Tolson about serving as the law school’s interim dean, it was a moment for soul searching. “It was really important to me, in undertaking this position, to make sure that I could still be positioned to do the work that I view as my broader purpose — this notion of helping people be full participants in our democracy,” she said. After a year in the interim post, Tolson is fully convinced that the position of dean of the law school aligns with her core identity as an election law scholar.

“One of the special things about USC, and the law school in particular, is the focus on the collective,” Tolson said. “We graduate people who then come back and participate in the law school in a number of ways. They teach students; they provide key financial support for our programs and scholarships; they sit on panels and provide mentorship; and they help students find jobs. All of this happens because we are a place that emphasizes the collective over the individual. Do you realize what would happen if we could transmit that positivity out into the world? In my view, it’s just another way of reinforcing democracy.”

Helping students stay competitive in a changing world

As she looks ahead to her new role, Tolson said one of her main priorities will be to help USC Gould students stay competitive in a crowded job market.

Tolson believes the key to student success is a customizable education that helps them broaden their skill sets, while also meeting the demands of evolving and emergent industries. She cites collaborations and joint degree programs with other units on campus as examples of how USC Gould is preparing its graduates to confront challenging legal issues in a changing world.

“Our partnerships with other units reflect the fact that law doesn’t stand alone — historically, we’ve been a terrific vehicle for interdisciplinary education, from the breadth of research done by our faculty to the joint degree programs we offer with other units,” Tolson said. “Now, we are trying to build even more partnerships because we understand that law touches on everything, and we’re at a top-tier research university that makes it possible to offer a unique educational experience that distinguishes us from every other law school in the country.”


This article first appeared on USC Today.

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