From his Chapel Hill office, Bowles sounds more like a preacher than president. The source of his passion for the job is his vision for the future of higher education.
"My job is to set up the organization, structure and focus to make it real," said Bowles. "That's what I'm good at, and that's what I'm going to do here."
One major issue to tackle is tuition rates.
"We have a state constitution that says we will keep tuition as low as practical, and as free from expense as practical," he said. "I think it's not only in our constitution. I think it's in our very soul."
Bowles brings to the job a powerful resume of successes in the private and public sector. He served two years as former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, crafting the first balanced budget in a generation.
That experience earned him a reputation for combining all opinions for the greater good. He plans to use those skills to keep the system together, even when members like UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University want greater autonomy.
"I have to prove to them the true value of being part of this system, and I am confident, because in the meetings I've already had with the chancellors and the trustees, so far I know we can do that," said Bowles.
Bowles is fervent when he talks of improving salaries and classroom conditions for teachers. He is equally intense when discussing his concerns that some business owners don't understand the competition from better-educated countries.
And for those who fear his Chapel Hill background might shape his decisions?
"I didn't cut my heart out," said Bowles. "I'm always going to be fond of Chapel Hill and pull for the Heels when they play. But I wasn't elected mayor of Chapel Hill. I was elected president of all 16 (campuses). "