Prior to 1963, a "system" of public higher education did not exist in New Hampshire. The State University in Durham was governed by its own Board of Trustees and the two Teachers' Colleges at Plymouth and Keene fell under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education. The "University System of New Hampshire" grew out of deliberations of the 1963 State Legislature, which acted upon the recommendations of an Interim Commission on Higher Education. Governor Wesley Powell appointed the commission in 1961 and charged them with developing a plan that would enable New Hampshire's institutions of public higher education to better cope with the anticipated explosion in student enrollment.

In 1963 the Commission presented an "Act Relative to the Reorganization of Public Higher Education in New Hampshire" to the New Hampshire General Court. The legislation that followed made subtle, but significant changes, in the wording of the existing state laws:

  • Keene and Plymouth Teachers' Colleges were removed from the supervision of the State Board of Education.
  • The teachers' colleges were renamed "state colleges," and placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trustees of the University of New Hampshire.
  • The legislation specified that the state colleges would become divisions of the University.
  • Expanded from 13 to 22 the number of members of the Board of Trustees. In future years the Board would grow to its current 27-member body.

Prior to this legislation, the two teachers' colleges had functioned as state agencies. Their faculty and staff were state employees who conformed to the State's personnel program. The University, on the other hand, had been chartered by the Legislature in 1866 as a "body corporate and politic." Under the broad powers granted to their trustees, UNH had evolved its own personnel, purchasing, design and construction, financial-record keeping, and other administrative and support systems independent of the state. The 1963 legislation instructed the Trustees to extend these "resources" to the colleges.

The "university system" that came into being in 1963 was the smallest—in terms of institutions, finances, personnel, students, and etc.—of the dozen or more public higher education systems then in existence in the United States.

The Board then moved quickly to designate the UNH president as "first-among-equals" and assigned the responsibility for leading and overseeing the efforts to merge and coordinate the activities of the three institutions. In 1972 the system grew further when the School of Continuing Studies (now the College for Lifelong Learning) was established by the Trustees to serve adult education needs throughout the state.

The 1960's had seen tremendous growth and development at each of the institutions and the campuses exploded with the growth in numbers of students, academic programs, student services, and ongoing construction of new buildings and facilities.

With a growing concern over the steadily increasing amount of time that senior UNH officers had to devote to their growing "system" responsibilities, the Trustees voted to physically separate the University System staff from the University staff. In the summer of 1974, the newly designated USNH staff officers and their support personnel moved five miles west of Durham to facilities that would later become known as the Dunlap Center and the Myers Financial Center.

When Dr. Thomas Bonner resigned the presidency of UNH in spring 1974, the Trustees recast the description for the next president removing the responsibility for system-wide leadership.

Simultaneously, the Trustees introduced legislation in the General Court to establish a new position of Chancellor of the University System. The legislation was speedily approved and took effect on July 1, 1974. The Chancellor would function as "chief executive and chief academic officer" for the System, and the campus presidents would "report to the Board of Trustees through the Chancellor." This marked the first clear delineation of the System leaders' authority. Since 1975 six chancellors have served the University System of New Hampshire. Each has had a positive impact on public higher education.