Peter Hans '91, Distinguished Service Medal Citation

Peter Hans ’91. Photo by Ray Black III

Peter Hans ’91 loves surprises. Good thing, given that as president of the UNC System, responsible for the smooth operation of 17 campuses rife with teenagers on their own for the first time, every day yields something happening somewhere that no one expected.

That’s when Hans’ calm, steady leadership comes into play. He stays focused on what’s important. As a co-worker says, “Peter never loses sight of the people we’re here to serve.”

Hans’ voice doesn’t need to be the loudest in the room, other colleagues say. He listens way more than he speaks, so when he does have something to say, people pay attention. They know he has given a “hard listen,” to use his expression, to all sides, and he’ll take into account those often disparate views as he shares his thoughts and ideas.

Throughout his career Hans has worked across party lines and decision-making bodies to bring people together in a low-friction manner. Former UNC System President Margaret Spellings, who called Hans her “consigliere,” told The Assembly she considered Hans a “shock absorber.” Hans brought a broad understanding of issues and human nature to his advisory roles, and people in power appreciate those gifts.

Hans spent the first 12 years of his life in the coastal town of Southport, then moved with his family to the small community of Horse Shoe in the mountains. He was the first in his family to go to college. Before coming to Chapel Hill, he hadn’t left home, not even to attend sleep-away camp. After graduating with a degree in political science, he completed a master’s degree in liberal arts at Harvard University.

In short order, Hans was hired by U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth as a senior policy adviser. During that time, Hans began a six-year term on the N.C. Board of Community Colleges. He was only 27. He chaired the Policy Committee and served as the board’s vice chair.

After Faircloth left office in 1999, Hans advised then-U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, and later Elizabeth Dole in her successful 2002 run for the U.S. Senate. He developed a reputation for efficacy in politics. In 2003, at age 33, he was elected to the UNC System Board of Governors, the first of three consecutive terms that included chairing the board from 2012 to 2014. He partnered with former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker ’74, a Democrat, to build a bipartisan government relations consultancy.

In 2016, Hans joined Spellings’ staff as a consultant until 2018 when he was appointed president of the 58-campus N.C. Community College System. During the two years he led the system, enrollment and graduation rates increased, as did public and private funding and business partnerships. He demonstrated his commitment to affordable, high-quality education opportunities being accessible to all who wanted higher education.

The UNC System Board of Governors elected Hans to succeed Spellings as president of the UNC System in 2020, making history: He’s the only system president to have served on the Board of Governors. The 17 campuses comprise an unusually diverse collection of schools, including five historically Black colleges and universities, an eclectic mix of regional schools and the flagship research university in Chapel Hill. Hans has had the opportunity to name a half-dozen new chancellors, and he’s worked steadily toward creating an online university to become the system’s 18th school.

One of Hans’ primary concerns has been students’ mental health. He took office during the COVID lockdown and has dealt with some on-campus suicides and a fatal shooting. Among his preventive efforts, he instituted an around-the-clock mental health hotline and training for campus law enforcement officers to help students in crisis.

As a member of the UNC Health Care Board of Directors, Hans works toward ensuring everyone has access to quality health care they can afford, regardless of their ZIP code.

He takes a quiet, humble approach to leadership that doesn’t make headlines, and he doesn’t claim credit, which, one of his colleagues noted, “In a noisy world, that’s countercultural.” It’s also uniquely Peter Hans. Where his predecessors had pet dogs, he has a pet rabbit.

Hans’ sharp wit acts as an antidote to stress. He artfully inserts little quips to defuse tension.

He loves to travel, but not as a tourist on the hop-on-hop-off bus. He prefers to settle into a new place, meet the local people and learn the culture. That interest translates into his work in North Carolina. When he meets new people, he likely has lived in their community or traveled there. He understands their culture. His ability to meet people where they are increases the likelihood that he can find a solution for what they view as a problem. He communicates even the most complicated issues with clarity. To use another Peter-ism: “You have to keep the hay where the goats can get it.”

Hans stays focused on three priorities for North Carolina’s public universities: access, affordability and student success. He puts the hay down for everyone he serves.


The Distinguished Service Medal is presented by the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors.

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