Three years ago, a group of center-right academics and policy leaders gathered at Princeton University to discuss defense policy and foreign affairs. One presidential administration was coming to an end, and a new one, with different beliefs and commitments, was preparing to take power. Toward the end of their long day, after weighty panels on war and commerce, the participants turned to that familiar final-session topic: Where do we go from here?
“A bunch of the professors were saying that even though their faculties were dominated by liberals, the students were much more balanced in their views and many of them were open to conservative ideas,” says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. “It dawned on me that law school students faced a similar situation 30 years ago—and that a few of them did something about it.”
Schmitt made a suggestion. What about starting a brand-new organization, modeled on the law school approach, but devoted to international relations?
“I just put the idea on the table and proposed that it was worth thinking about,” says Schmitt. “It’s one of the most successful organizations of its type.” He pauses. “You know,” he continues, “the Federalist Society.”
Balancing the Scales
Since its founding in 1982, the Federalist Society has transformed the legal profession at every level, from introductory classes at law schools all the way to the marbled chambers of the United States Supreme Court. “You have changed the debate, while gaining the respect of people across the ideological spectrum,” said Vice President Dick Cheney at one of the Federalist Society’s national conferences. “Against great odds, this organization has become one of the most influential in the world of law and public policy.”
Today, the Federalist Society is an enormous organization, with a chapter at every accredited law school in America and a budget that will top $11 million this school year, an all-time high. Yet it started out small and developed almost by accident. In the early 1980s, energized by the election of Ronald Reagan, a handful of law school students at the University of Chicago, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford bristled at the liberalism of their professors. Their ranks included Spencer Abraham, Steven Calabresi, David McIntosh, and Lee Liberman Otis (who would go on to become, respectively, a Senator from Michigan and Secretary of Energy, a professor of law at Northwestern, a Congressman from Indiana, and a vice president at the Federalist Society). At first they tried to fight back in modest ways, such as hosting speakers who presented alternatives to campus orthodoxies.
“Against great odds, the Federalist Society has become one of the most influential in the world of law and public policy” —Dick Cheney
By 1982, however, they wanted to aim higher. They proposed putting on a national conference at Yale that would attract both right-of-center students as well as the leading conservative and libertarian legal minds. The money for the event came from the Institute for Educational Affairs, a nonprofit group funded by the now-defunct John M. Olin Foundation and several allied foundations, including Earhart, JM, Scaife, and Smith Richardson. IEA chipped in $15,000—an investment that the late Irving Kristol, who influenced the decision, once called “the best money we ever spent at IEA.”
About 200 students attended the conference, which featured an impressive list of speakers, including Robert Bork (who would be nominated for, but not confirmed to, the Supreme Court) and Antonin Scalia (who would be both nominated and confirmed). The most important result, however, had relatively little to do with what any of the speakers said. It came from what the event itself inspired. If a few hundred students from across the country were willing to show up for a conference, shouldn’t there be an organization that supports them after they return to their campuses?
Soon, the conference’s leaders wrote and distributed a 15-page document that proposed to start “an effective national conservative legal network” called the Federalist Society. “Despite the ambitious nature of what we have described, prospects for success are excellent because we are filling an obvious need,” said the proposal. “Many conservative resources are expended creating organizations which duplicate each other. The potential here is enormous because no such organization exists.”
Within months, the Federalist Society was raising money and starting chapters. It also hired Eugene Meyer as executive director—a job that Meyer now has held for almost three decades. “When people ask me to explain our success, I always go back to one thing: our dedication to ideas,” says Meyer. The Federalist Society doesn’t endorse candidates like a political-action committee or issue position papers like a think tank. Instead, it promotes debates—and virtually all of its campus chapters have been built on the notion that sponsoring a debate on an interesting topic and with a pair of compelling speakers will attract a crowd. Last year, according to Meyer, the Federalist Society’s student chapters put on 1,280 events, for an average about six per chapter, while its professional chapters hosted an additional 350.
From the audiences that attend these events, the Federalist Society recruits its members—and hopes they go on to accomplish great things in the legal profession. “It’s a little bit like the concept of a classical education,” says Meyer. “We aren’t focused on getting a certain policy result right now. We’re preparing a generation of leaders who will help us get the results we really want in the long run.”
It’s hard to argue with what the Federalist Society has produced: judges at all levels, including the Supreme Court, as well as law professors at the best schools and attorneys in every conceivable legal field. The organization now serves as something of a counterweight to the American Bar Association, which abandoned a tradition of objective non-partisanship in 1987 when several panel members voted to rate Bork—a professor at Yale Law School, former Solicitor General, and appellate court judge—as “not qualified” for the Supreme Court. One of the Federalist Society’s publications, ABA Watch, persuaded the administration of George W. Bush to stop asking the ABA to screen judicial nominees.
“All in all, the Federalist Society has been one of the best investments the foundation ever made,” wrote the staff of the John M. Olin Foundation in a report to its trustees in 2003, shortly before the foundation finished spending its corpus and closed its doors.
Curing Medical Education
Now philanthropists are wondering whether the remarkable experience of the Federalist Society can transfer to other fields—and they are investing in new projects that hope to replicate its success in the areas of medicine, business, and foreign affairs.
The thought has frequently occurred to Meyer. As the Federalist Society grew in influence, he increasingly wondered: Could it serve as a model for other groups with similar objectives in different disciplines? “If you take ideas seriously and put on debates, you’ll get the best and the brightest,” he says. “I think this applies to everybody, no matter what field they’re in.”
Sally Pipes was thinking largely along the same lines. As the Canadian-born head of the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in San Francisco, she emerged in the 1990s as one of the most powerful critics of government-run health care. Now an American citizen, she spends much of her time warning her fellow countrymen about the dangers of Canadian-style policies. In addition to giving speeches and writing op-eds, she develops institutional strategies for fighting socialized medicine—and about five years ago, she came up with the idea of a Federalist Society for medical students.
“I was having dinner in New York City with my godson, a Canadian who was studying at Columbia University to become a doctor,” says Pipes. “He complained that when his professors turned away from the science of medicine and talked about health policy, the only option they really ever discussed was the single-payer system.” Pipes has spent the bulk of her career arguing against precisely this mindset. “It occurred to me that if we’re going to defeat government-run health care, then we’re going to have to reach medical students. They hear a lot of wishful thinking about what government can do, and not much about common-sense alternatives based on individual choice.” A couple of months later, Pipes bumped into Meyer and told him about her idea. He was enthusiastic and offered to help.
By the end of 2007, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation had agreed to fund an exploratory meeting. The following May, Pipes hosted a group of health-policy professionals and opinion leaders in Washington, D.C. They listened to Pipes explain her idea, heard Meyer describe the ways in which he thought the Federalist Society’s model could be adapted, and discussed whether it all made sense. “There was a feeling that the medical schools had embraced statism and were telling students that they should think of their profession not as a business but as a calling,” says Deroy Murdock, a columnist in attendance. The group was persuaded that something needed to be done.
In the weeks before the meeting, as Pipes was thinking through the concept, her husband, Claremont McKenna College professor Charles Kesler, suggested that its title refer to Benjamin Rush, a doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence and served with the army in the American Revolution. It took some convincing. (“I hadn’t heard of him before,” says Pipes. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada.”) Soon enough, Pipes was fully on board with the concept and the name.
In 2008, she launched the Benjamin Rush Society. Today, it has a budget of $450,000 and chapters at 17 medical schools. Ten of these chapters have put on events, including those at Baylor, Duke, George Washington, Harvard, and Stanford. Earlier this year, the chapter at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus sponsored a debate on affordable health care. According to a Benjamin Rush Society report, the event attracted a crowd of 200 and the discussion “was able to swing 10 percent of the audience toward free-market healthcare solutions.” When it was over, only 20 people “left still believing in the ‘Obamacare model.’”
Jason Fodeman, an internal medicine resident at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Benjamin Rush Society’s board of visitors, thinks the group satisfies a desperate need. “Medical school curricula are full of liberal bias,” he says. “Students don’t hear about competing perspectives—and it’s essential that they do because every medical issue is now becoming politicized.” Fodeman points to a recent op-ed in the New England Journal of Medicine that calls for medical schools to begin requiring courses in health policy. He worries that without the Benjamin Rush Society, students will only hear one side of important arguments. “The Benjamin Rush Society is a breath of fresh air in organized medicine,” he says.
Donors to the Benjamin Rush Society have included the Achelis and Bodman Foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the Paul E. Singer Family Foundation. Pipes believes that her group can double its chapters in the next couple of years as well as separate itself from the Pacific Research Institute, becoming a fully independent nonprofit organization.
Enriching the MBA
One of the major challenges in persuading medical students to become involved with the Benjamin Rush Society is that they’re so busy. “They think they can handle extracurricular activities in the first year,” says Pipes. “By their second year, a lot of them feel overwhelmed by the schoolwork.”
The Adam Smith Society, a new group that wants to do for business schools what the Federalist Society did for law schools, faces a different problem: By the time students are in their second year, they are looking to get their diplomas and resume their careers. “Business schools tend to be more practical than theoretical; only a few expose their students to the philosophical and moral underpinnings of capitalism,” says Marilyn Fedak, an investor-turned-philanthropist. “Many of these students will become the future leaders of our country. As such, it’s essential that we reach them.”
Fedak knows the business world well. She earned her MBA at Harvard and began a nearly four-decade career in finance, mostly at Alliance Bernstein, an asset management firm in New York. (For more on Fedak, please see “Intellectual Capital,” Philanthropy, Spring 2011.) In 2008, while vice chair of investor services at Alliance Bernstein, she watched as the financial markets seemed to collapse around her—with government intervening in unprecedented ways. “I began to realize that capitalism was being vilified, in ways we haven’t seen since the Great Depression,” she reflects. “‘Something has to be done to support capitalism,’ I realized. ‘What can I do?’”
Fedak decided to focus her philanthropic efforts on students. “I’ve known so many young people in the investment business who didn’t see the moral benefits of the system,” she says. “They hadn’t been taught how the free markets interact with our institutions, personal liberties, and social mobility.” To that end, she spent a couple of years trying to develop new courses and influence the curricula at business schools. But she grew disenchanted with this approach. “With the funding we had available at the beginning of our project, that model wouldn’t have given us the most leverage. Though we will likely provide funding for individual courses down the road, we needed something that could provide more immediate impact,” she says. Earlier this year, she and her project partners at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University discussed other possible approaches. “The one that excited us the most was creating a version of the Federalist Society for business schools.”
The next step was the same one that Sally Pipes took with the Benjamin Rush Society: a consultation with Gene Meyer. Several years before, Meyer tried to create chapters of the Federalist Society at business schools, before deciding that the initiative was too far removed from the Federalist Society’s mission. But he did introduce Fedak to several students at Harvard Business School who had founded Ideas@Work, a group that seeks to bring debate about free markets and limited government to Cambridge. This fall, Ideas@Work will become the first campus chapter of the Adam Smith Society. It expects to hold six or eight major events this school year.
“People say, ‘Of course, business schools believe in capitalism,’” says Fedak. “But the linkages between the free markets and our society are often not articulated. As we have expressed in our mission statement, we want students to understand that business, entrepreneurship, and commerce are wellsprings that keep this country vibrant, creative, prosperous, and free.” A separate challenge is that business schools are oriented toward practical approaches rather than ideas. “Most MBA programs don’t really teach about the ties between economic and political institutions,” explains Alison Smith, who runs the Adam Smith Society as a project of the Manhattan Institute. “They tend to emphasize case studies.”
The Adam Smith Society recently held a reception for potential heads of chapters from five campuses, and it expects to announce the formation of its second chapter, at Yale, soon. By the end of the current school year, the Adam Smith Society would like to have 10 chapters established at leading business schools. “If we’re one-tenth as successful as the Federalist Society has been,” says Fedak, “that will be excellent.”
Strengthening National Security Programs
Among the groups inspired by the Federalist Society, the Alexander Hamilton Society, dedicated to foreign policy, is perhaps the furthest along in its development. The group now works with students and faculty from at least 27 schools and about 15 campuses will sponsor events in the fall semester. Before the school year is over, it may spend as much as $750,000. Unlike the Benjamin Rush Society and the Adam Smith Society, which are projects overseen by well-established think tanks, AHS is an independent organization with its own offices and tax-exempt status.
“When Gary Schmitt suggested that we create a group modeled on the Federalist Society, a light bulb switched on,” says Aaron Friedberg, the Princeton professor who had coordinated and hosted the meeting where Schmitt made the suggestion. “I’d been thinking a lot about how to engage students in these issues, and this idea immediately made a lot of sense.”
Friedberg has spent the bulk of his career in academia—he is the author of a new book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia—but he also has served in government, most notably as deputy assistant for national security affairs under Vice President Cheney. “There’s a wide array of opinions among college students, much wider than there is among their professors,” says Friedberg. “Some students are conservative, and even among the others, there’s an openness to conservative thinking in part because their own ideas aren’t fully formed.” His experience teaching these students on campus, as well as working with graduates who enter government, convinced him that they needed a new organization.
Friedberg approached potential donors and quickly secured the funding he needed to launch the Alexander Hamilton Society. One of the donors is Roy Katzovicz, a New York fund manager who also sits on the society’s board. The Federalist Society model made sense to him. “That’s a benchmark for us,” he says. “When the Federalist Society started, they weren’t thinking about building a big network. Now we know it can be done.” He also understands that nothing will happen without the support of private funding: “We’re not here wishing the Alexander Hamilton Society will come together through spontaneous combustion. We’re activists, and we’re making it happen.”
Another major supporter of the Alexander Hamilton Society is Roger Hertog, the New York philanthropist—and, not coincidentally, one of Marilyn Fedak’s mentors at Alliance Bernstein (and in her philanthropy). “It’s a novel idea, but not a high-cost idea,” says Hertog. “The Federalist Society is one of the great success stories, with its intellectual front and its networking front.” (For more on Hertog, please see “The Business of Big Ideas,” Philanthropy, Fall 2010.) Does he imagine that one day the Alexander Hamilton Society will be able to boast that a Secretary of State or a National Security Advisor is a member? “That would be wonderful, but the best thing is to produce excellent teachers at the best universities. That’s the greatest leverage,” he says. “People of reasonable self-reflection will remember a teacher who got them interested in something and changed their lives.”
One of the missions of the Alexander Hamilton Society is to fill a hole in the academic curriculum, created when universities began to abandon the teaching of military history, diplomatic history, and grand strategy. “Security studies have disappeared,” says Dianne Sehler of the Bradley Foundation, which has supported Friedberg’s work for years and recently has given six-figure grants to the Alexander Hamilton Society. “Academic culture won’t even permit the discussion of certain questions, such as when it’s acceptable for the United States to use military force. It’s not part of the orthodoxy.”
The Alexander Hamilton Society plans to duplicate the method of the Federalist Society as much as possible, by encouraging campus chapters to hold debates while refusing to formulate its own specific policy positions. It even follows the pattern of taking its name after a figure from the early republic. Americans may not immediately associate Alexander Hamilton, a one-time Secretary of the Treasury, with foreign policy, but executive director Mitchell Muncy thinks it makes sense. “Hamilton had a particular approach to foreign policy. It was distinct from that of Thomas Jefferson, his principal rival,” he says. “He believed that the United States should become a national power and that its security would rest upon its financial and industrial success.”
Even as the Alexander Hamilton Society tries to imitate the Federalist Society, it has already made adjustments to serve its niche. Most notably, it does not limit membership to graduate students or student enrolled in professional schools. Undergraduates are fully involved in its work. Another difference involves the nature of foreign policy, where it is much harder to distinguish between conservative and liberal approaches, especially on matters such as human rights, free trade, and the promotion of democracy. One broad principle appears to be the concept that political freedom also requires economic freedom, but even this leaves plenty of room for debate and disagreement.
“Building Intellectual Capital”
As the Federalist Society approaches its 30th anniversary, the rationale for its creation is now obvious. It makes sense that forward-looking philanthropists would want to see if similar groups could replicate its success. But this points to a final difference between the Federalist Society and its progeny. The Federalist Society was created in a dorm room, not a board room. The students who started it needed philanthropic dollars, to be sure, but ultimately their organization was built from the bottom up. For the newer groups, the reverse is true. Although the Benjamin Rush Society, the Adam Smith Society, and the Alexander Hamilton Society are all finding students who want to lead campus chapters and stand a good chance of becoming stable organizations, they are being built from the top down.
Of course, it is easy to see why a philanthropist would want to try. If just one of these endeavors succeeds and earns the influence in its field that the Federalist Society enjoys in the legal profession, then the sum of the grants and contributions invested in all three of them will have been money well spent. “It doesn’t take that much capital—we’re not building with bricks and mortar,” says Hertog. “We’re building intellectual capital, and that provides the highest return on investment that you can have.”
Contributing editor John J. Miller is director of the Herbert H. Dow II Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.