Chowan was founded by Dr. Godwin Cotton Moore in 1848 as Chowan Baptist Female Institute, a four-year women's college. It traces its roots to the Hertford Academy. The McDowell Columns building, which houses the administrative offices of the college, was constructed in 1851. Between 1850-1867, the school changed names to the Chowan Female Collegiate Institute, then switched back to the Chowan Baptist Female Institute.
The school was renamed Chowan College in 1910 when it began awarding baccalaureate degrees, and began admitting male students in 1931. Financial strain from the effects of the Great Depression forced the school to become a two-year institution in 1937. In 1992 the college returned to four-year status when it admitted a junior class. The school's Board of Trustees elected to officially change the name to Chowan University on April 6, 2006, and the change in status took place on September 1, 2006.
Over 70 academic programs, an honors college, study abroad, research opportunities, internships. Many of Chowan's programs are nationally accredited, and Chowan University was featured in US News and World Report.
An academic assistance program and tutoring center provide academic assistance for the entire student population. Student tutors and the academic assistance team work one-on-one with students.
The school currently boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 15:1 with the majority of that faculty holding doctorates in their respective fields from premier institutions.
Coach James Garrison was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. He was the Chowan College football coach for 43 years. Coach Garrison won 182 games (third among junior college coaches) and was 7-time Conference Coach of the Year. 35 players were NJCAA All-Americans. The last football team to post a winning record was the 1999 Chowan team which finished 5-4.
Bob Burke won over 450 games as the head basketball coach.
Chowan University has the following athletic teams: Women's Soccer, Men's Soccer, Football, Volleyball, Cross Country, Men's Basketball, Women's Basketball, Softball, Baseball, Golf, Tennis, and Cheerleading.
On September 24, 2007, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, established in 1912 and the oldest black athletic conference in United States, announced that Chowan would join the conference for its 2008 football season. Chowan will initially enter the conference to participate in only football. Before the addition of Chowan, the CIAA consisted only of historically African-American institutions of higher education. In joining the CIAA (which sponsors 16 men’s and women’s championships annually), Chowan continues its membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II. In October 2008, the CIAA Board of Trustees voted to accept Chowan University as a full member of the CIAA. Chowan accepted, and thus became the first non-HBCU member of the CIAA, and will participate in all sports officially for the 2009 fall season.