Composer Vittorio Giannini served as NCSA's first President. It was his vision that shaped the School's founding and continues to make the School unique among its peers: utilizing a resident faculty of professional artists; beginning training at the age that talent first becomes evident; cultivating a true community of artists, living together in a conservatory environment; and emphasizing learning by doing, with performance as an integral part of instruction.
After Giannini’s untimely death in November 1966, Dr. Louis A. Mennini served as Interim President for the 1966-67 school year.
Dr. Robert Eugene Ward, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former member of the faculty of Juilliard, succeeded Giannini as NCSA's second President in 1967. Ward led the School through its first decade, while policies and programs were still being developed. During his tenure, the School more than doubled its faculty and enrollment; established a School of Design and Production, separate from the School of Drama; and created a high school Visual Arts program. Ward also presided over the incorporation of the School into the University of North Carolina System in 1972, when 16 public senior institutions, including NCSA, became constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina. The title of President was subsequently changed to Chancellor.
A third composer, Dr. Robert Suderburg, became Chancellor of the School in 1974. Suderburg’s tenure was marked by major capital improvements at the School, financed through increased contributions from the state and private sources. Among these improvements were the completion of the Workplace building and the opening of Semans Library; the partial renovation of the Gray High School building; the acquisition of the former Mack Truck facility; and the renovation of the former Carolina Theatre, now the Roger L. Stevens Center, in downtown Winston-Salem. Dr. Suderburg also received approval to establish the school’s first graduate program, a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Design in Production in 1982.
Lawrence Hart, former Dean of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, served as Interim Chancellor during the 1983-84 school year.
Dr. Jane E. Milley, a pianist and former dean of the School of Fine Arts at California State University at Long Beach, assumed her post as Chancellor in September 1984. During her tenure the School received funding from the North Carolina General Assembly for construction of Alex Ewing Performance Place, and the renovation of the Gray Building and Design & Production facilities. She secured increased state funding to operate the Stevens Center; acquired additional student housing; enhanced the visiting artists program; and received approval from UNC Board of Governors to begin plans for a new School of Filmmaking and for the school’s second graduate program, Master of Music.
Dr. Philip F. Nelson, former Dean of Music at Yale University, served as Interim Chancellor during the 1989-90 school year.
In the spring of 1990, Alexander C. Ewing was appointed Chancellor. Ewing had been associated with NCSA since 1985, when he was asked to chair the newly reorganized Board of Visitors. In 1988 he established the Lucia Chase Endowed Fellowship for Dance at NCSA in memory of his mother, a co-founder and principal dancer with Ballet Theatre, now known as American Ballet Theatre. Ewing came to the School with a background as a former journalist and arts administrator. He spearheaded the establishment and construction of a fifth arts school, the School of Filmmaking, filling the need for training in the growing field of the moving image arts. During his tenure, student life on campus was improved with the establishment of the position of Vice-Chancellor of Student Life and the opening of a fitness center. Early in his administration, Ewing saw a critical need to improve the campus environment and worked with local and state leaders to form the Southeast Gateway Initiative, a neighborhood improvement plan. Ewing successfully lobbied for the rerouting of Waughtown St. and the creation of a new main entrance for the campus from South Main Street. During Ewing's tenure enrollment was increased by 40%, a full-time alumni and career services office was established, and the Kenan Institute for the Arts was brought to the School.
After Ewing’s retirement, Earl Wade Hobgood, dean of the College of Arts at California State University at Long Beach, became Chancellor in 2000. The first native North Carolinian to serve as Chancellor, Hobgood worked to secure passage of $42.5 million in higher education bonds - approved by N.C. voters in the fall of 2000 - that allowed the School to build a new School of Music complex, a new Welcome Center, a new “connector building” to connect and add space to the two high school residence halls, a new School of Filmmaking Archives, an addition to Alex Ewing Performance Place, and a new wig and makeup studio and costume shop. It was also during Hobgood’s tenure that the School acquired the former Our Lady of Mercy property on South Main and Sunnyside Streets and turned it into Workplace West campus. Hobgood initiated a proposal to provide free tuition, room and board for North Carolina High School students accepted to NCSA, which was approved by the N.C. General Assembly in the fall of 2001. The creation of the Center for Creative Initiative (CDI) was spearheaded by Hobgood, who led the effort to secure $12 million in funding for the Center. Established in 2005 as a multi-campus research center of the UNC system, the CDI is a partnership between UNC School of the Arts, Winston Salem State University, and Forsyth Technical Community College, located in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem.
On July 1, 2005, Dr. Gretchen M. Bataille, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for the 16-campus University of North Carolina System, was named Interim Chancellor for the 2005-06 school year.
John Francis Mauceri was installed as NCSA's seventh Chancellor on July 1, 2006. Founding Director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and an accomplished conductor, composer, and recording artist, Mauceri heightened awareness of the School to audiences throughout the world. Under his leadership, “University” was added to the school’s name to distinguish it from the growing number of arts magnet high schools, and to affirm the school’s relationship with the UNC System established in 1972. Mauceri raised scholarship funds with gala West Side Story, Oklahoma and Nutcracker musical performances, and the 100th anniversary celebration of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed by a five year commitment of $750,000 to televise UNCSA productions on UNC-TV. Mauceri partnered with American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in an exclusive cooperative agreement as the official affiliate school of the UNCSA School of Dance.
Dr. James Moeser, former chancellor at UNC Chapel Hill, served as Interim Chancellor for the academic year 2013-14.
Mark Lindsay Bierman, former editor of Southern Living magazine, assumed his post as UNCSA’s eighth Chancellor on July 21, 2014. During his tenure, Bierman spearheaded the largest donation in the School's history and launched the institution's first comprehensive fundraising campaign since 1999, which raised nearly $50 million in three years. Bierman allocated funds annually for Artpreneur Grants, steered the development of a new Choreographic Institute in the School of Dance, launched an animatronics program in the School of Design and Production, and established the Media and Emerging Technology Lab (METL) in the School of Filmmaking.
Brian Cole, former Dean of the UNCSA School of Music, was named the ninth Chancellor on May 20, 2020. Cole joined UNCSA in 2016 as Dean of the School of Music and served as Interim Chancellor from August 2019 - May 2020. During Cole's tenure as Interim, UNCSA launched the public phase of its largest fundraising effort in the university’s history—a $65 million comprehensive campaign called Powering Creativity: The Campaign for UNCSA. As Dean of the School of Music, Cole developed the school’s first-ever strategic plan, modernized existing and created new academic programs, and facilitated international partnerships with institutions in Germany, Austria and China. He also served as the executive director for two pre-professional graduate institutes at the school: the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute and the Chrysalis Chamber Music Institute. During his time as Dean, Cole oversaw the installation of a state-of-the art video recording system in Watson Hall, allowing for the live streaming of performances, bringing UNCSA to a wider audience and providing practical training for students.