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The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions was founded in 1959 by Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago. It grew out of the Basic Issues program of the Fund for the Republic, an organization dedicated to the support of church, educational, and social service groups that fought against the abuse of American civil liberties. The Center was conceived as a place for interdisciplinary discourse, where intellectuals could gather to discuss issues confronting the United States and the world. Over the course of the Center's twenty-eight-year existence, twenty-five Senior Fellows and a revolving series of visiting fellows held daily discussions called Dialogues. The Center's activities were recorded in two publications, Center Magazine and Center Report.
Elisabeth Mann Borgese was one of the Center's senior fellows and also the only woman. The Center struggled with financial problems and political harmony for much of its existence. Internal disputes among the staff led to reorganization in 1969. Hutchins remained the central figure guiding the Center throughout its existence. His one attempt to retire in 1973 was unsuccessful when his successor, Malcolm Moos, was not accepted by the Senior Fellows or the Board of Directors of the Fund for the Republic. After Hutchins' death in 1977, the Center was again reorganized and became associated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Fund for the Republic was dissolved. Even this change did not solve the Center's financial and political problems, and after a series of short-term directors, the Center was closed permanently in 1987.