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Federalist Society Inspires Conservative Groups on College Campuses

Federalist societies, like this one at the University of Michigan School of Law, are emerging on college campuses.Federalist societies, like this one at the University of Michigan School of Law, are emerging on college campuses.DURHAM, N.C.—A new conservatism is beginning to emerge on some college campuses, spurred in part by opposition to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Modeled after The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, which has molded several generations of legal thinkers at the nation’s law schools, this new wave of conservative thinkers is looking to take root in graduate schools of business, medicine and foreign policy.

One of the fastest-growing conservative alternatives is the Benjamin Rush Society, whose members support a free-market, limited government approach to medicine. The organization says its ranks have swelled since passage of the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Thirty to 40 years ago, the rule of law was a joke. It wasn’t taken seriously,” said Dr. Beth Haynes, executive director of the Rush society, named for an 18th Century physician who signed the Declaration of Independence. “It had no intellectual weight to it upon law campuses. That’s a very similar place to where free market in academic medicine is. It’s considered laughable.”

“I want to get free market back to the point where it’s a respectable point of view that has to be seriously considered. There’s no way that can happen until students are aware of what that really means, and they start having conversations,” he said.

At Duke University, fourth-year medical student Alex Chamessian leads a modest Benjamin Rush chapter that hosts debates, guest speakers and Skype chats. Like their counterparts at Ohio State, Yale, George Washington and other campuses, the Duke chapter embraces spirited debate rather than confrontation, Chamessian said. They’re also more concerned with finding the right kind of members—future influence leaders—than merely pumping up the membership rolls. Chamessian said that, while events typically draw 40 to 50 students, the core group consists of a half-dozen leaders.

It’s a well-worn model that Federalist Society forebears perfected a generation ago, with speakers willing to challenge their host’s perspective in order to give the students a chance to make up their own minds.

At the University of Cincinnati, Benjamin Rush brown-bag talks routinely draw 60 to 70 students, said Tom Boone, a third-year medical student who started the chapter with friends unhappy with what he calls a “one-sided curriculum” in which government solutions to health care typically prevail.

“We realized that this whole thing has been a bunch of bunk,” Boone said. “We haven’t heard the other side.”

Chamessian, who hopes to earn a doctorate in neurobiology after completing his medical training, said most of his classmates believe in universal health care with little thought given to its finances. He said Duke and most other U.S. medical schools devote little classroom time to health care policy or economics.

“Everybody else had nowhere to go,” he said. “You talked in whispers about alternatives. … It helps those of us who kept our opinions under the radar to have a haven.”

At Duke, the Rush Society cuts such a low profile that medical school administrators were unaware of the chapter’s existence until contacted by The Associated Press. They said the school welcomes a variety of beliefs and disagrees with the contention that the school uncritically supports government intervention in health care.

“Duke University’s medical school has a diverse group of students from many backgrounds and with many different opinions and philosophies about a variety of issues,” said Dr. Edward Buckley, vice dean for education. “That is what makes our student population great, and we not only encourage but embrace an environment where students are free to support their beliefs and express their opinions.”

The Duke group’s guest speakers included Dr. Keith Smith, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist whose surgical center lists the costs of its medical procedures online in a move toward price transparency. The practice only accepts private health insurance, not Medicaid or Medicare.

Also using the same approach is the Alexander Hamilton Society, whose March 2010 creators include Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg and hedge fund lawyer Roy Katzovicz. The group says its goal is providing “what American higher education lacks: vital, constructive debate on foreign, economic and national security policy” rather than letting students rely on “professors whose commitment to liberal internationalism remains steadfast.”

More than 50 chapters have sprung up, including at Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and six of the eight Ivy League schools.

The Benjamin Rush Society traces its roots to 2008, when Canadian activist Sally Pipes organized a Washington meeting with support from the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Its credo: “the profession of medicine calls its practitioners to serve their patients rather than the government.” Conversely, they also support so-called “concierge medicine” in which those with more money pay for individualized care otherwise unavailable.

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