In July 1989, a group of higher education scholars and researchers set up a Society for a New Bulgarian University aimed at reforming the system of Bulgarian higher education. On 18 September 1991, the Society was awarded university status under the name of New Bulgarian University with a resolution by the Bulgarian Parliament.

In 1991-1993, during the first period of NBU’s development, efforts were focused on putting in place the various aspects of its organizational structure and communications strategies. On 17 October 1991, the General Meeting of the Society met in order to name the members of a Provisional Board of Trustees. Professor Bogdan Bogdanov was elected President and acting Rector. The Provisional Board of Trustees was instrumental in preparing university development strategy and action plan documents and shaping its academic policy and staff.

In 1991–1992, the School of Free Studies and the Correspondence School (also known as the RadioUniversity) were established to offer full-time and distance learning courses and qualification programs. Departments were set up within the School of Free Studies as University’s academic and research units.
During this period, the programs of study were experimental and professionally oriented. The introduction of a credit system stimulated student mobility and enhanced NBU’s integration into the local and international academic community.

On 14 March 1994, during the second period of NBU development (1993–1998), the NBU Bylaws and Regulations were adopted laying down the University organizational structure and defining its forms of governance and self-governance. The University adopted a bicameral governance structure with two legislative bodies where the responsibility for administrative and fiscal matters is assigned to the Board of Trustees, and the responsibility for academic matters is assigned to the Academic Council. Prof. Bogdan Bogdanov assumed the position of President of the Board of Trustees, and Prof. Ivanka Apostolova was elected Rector of NBU. The University Board of Trustees included, apart from ex-officio members, representatives of local authorities, industry, business and NGOs.

In 1993, a broad range of programs of study were created and offered through the newly established Schools of Regular and Doctoral Studies. New Bulgarian University pioneered the introduction in Bulgaria of Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees. Foundations were laid for the establishment and development of Departments as academic communities bringing together faculty and researchers working in the same subject area and responsible for monitoring and assuring the quality of faculty and programs of study. Local NBU centers were set up outside Sofia, first in Varna, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo, followed by those in Vidin and Vratsa.
In mid-1990s, efforts were undertaken to put NBU governance and operations on a solid planning basis. In 1997, NBU’s first planning document entitled Self-Assessment and Institutional Development Document was prepared with the help of international experts in a series of seminars, meetings of working groups and University-wide conferences.

The 1999/2000 academic year saw the launch of 16 general education programs acting as the gateway to a Bachelor’s degree. The liberal education approach was discussed at conferences such as University-wide Education: Objectives and Necessity and Program of Study at NBU: Policies and Procedures as well as with Salzburg Seminar representatives.

The National Accreditation and Assessment Council, which reviews Bulgaria’s higher education teaching, granted NBU maximum accreditation of six years in three consecutive accreditations in 2001, 2006 and 2012.

The General Education Program in Artes Liberales was launched in the academic year 2001/2002 organized around a core of elective courses in major areas of knowledge. There was a strong tendency to introduce the liberal arts approach into other general education programs. Minor programs were introduced at the School of Undergraduate Studies available to students enrolled in major programs. Programs at the School of Graduate Studies were reviewed to achieve a more focused specialization. The NBU Schools launched the process of creating a wider range of distance learning courses to be offered alongside traditional face-to-face ones. In September 2001, Raina Kabaivanska conducted her first opera singing master class at New Bulgarian University.

In 2002 Assoc. Prof. Sergei Ignatov, PhD was elected Rector of NBU.

In academic year 2003/2004, a new program of study reform was passed aimed at enhancing the liberal arts foundations of education at NBU, which included General Education Programs within Bachelor’s programs and a total of 24 Bachelor’s programs.

In 2010, a new stage of the program of study reform was passed introducing the transition to the new University-wide Core Curriculum during the first two years of 4-year Bachelor’s degree programs. New Bachelor’s programs were created bringing their number to a total of 54.

In November 2009 Prof. Sergei Ignatov, DSc was appointed Minister of Education, Youth and Science. The position of NBU Rector was assumed by Prof. Ludmil Georgiev, PhD.

In March 2012 Assoc. Prof. Plamen Bochkov was elected Rector of NBU.

From 2009 to 2014 NBU’s programs of study were reviewed and updated to enhance the link between education and employment in response to the changing needs of the labor market. In Bachelor’s and Master’s programs the focus shifted on independent studies, practicums and internships relevant to students’ degree program and future professional career. All NBU undergraduate students received the opportunity to earn a Minor in the same field as their Major, or in a different one, free of charge. All NBU programs emphasize learning and individual development over degree completion cultivating critical and creative thinking, sensitivity to cultural difference, and problem‐solving and equipping them with the tools to build fulfilling and productive life.

The list of NBU Honorary Doctors and Honorary Professors include individuals of international renown such as Richard Rorty, Vera Mutafchieva, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Milcho Leviev, Robert Young, Raina Kabaivanska, Lord Ralf Darendorf, Terry Eagleton, Geert Hofstede, Daniel Libeskind, Ennio Morricone etc.

The development and activities of New Bulgarian University are guided by a system of planning documents. The overarching 5-Year Strategic Plan is a governance document which is reflected in the 2-Year Development Plan and given effect in Department Specific Semester Action Plans.

From 1995 to 2002, Prof. Ivanka Apostolova held the position of Rector of NBU.

From 20 May 2002 to 2006, she served on the Board of Trustees of NBU.

During her career, Prof. Apostolova held a variety of positions including Director of the Center for Educational Philosophy, Scientific Secretary of the Center for Philosophy and sociology, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, and Advisor to the Rector of Burgas Free University. She also gave talks at World Congresses of Philosophy in Russia, Germany, Canada and the UK.

Her academic works include Between Physics and Philosophy, Thinking Style, Humanizing Science, Physicists and Axiological Problems, Philosophical Assumptions and Scientific Community. She conducted specialized studies in research centers in Russia, the UK and USA.
Prof. Apostolova passed away on 9 December 2006.