Florida Atlantic University’s search for a new president attracted statewide attention, mostly because of two well-known politicians who were in the mix.
But on Friday evening, university trustees picked a seasoned academic as their next leader. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, both prominent Republicans, came up on the losing end.
LeMieux very nearly took the job, but instead he was runner-up to John Kelly, the vice president for economic development at South Carolina’s Clemson University.
Kelly has been at Clemson since 1985, and has a background in horticulture.
“I'm going to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” he told the Board of Trustees, according to the Sun Sentinel. “I'm ready to go.”
While LeMieux was seen as a potentially better fundraiser, one of the trustees said Kelly would be seen as a “less controversial” and “safer” pick.
Mere minutes after the final outcome, Broward College President J. David Armstrong Jr. released a statement praising the new president, saying “Kelly brings decades of academic and leadership experience.”
Kelly also speaks with a Southern drawl — something that FAU trustees speculated might endear him to some state lawmakers in Tallahassee.
Atwater had been rejected as a candidate a week earlier after some on FAU’s search committee had criticized him for vague responses to his interview questions.
On Friday, just before the final outcome, an informal poll of FAU trustees showed they were split between LeMieux and Kelly. But with LeMieux unable to cobble together a majority of votes, the university chose Kelly.
The final vote was unanimous.
FAU has been without a permanent president since May — when former President Mary Jane Saunders abruptly stepped down.
Saunders had been overwhelmed by a string of public relations embarrassments: One FAU professor sparked outrage by questioning whether the Sandy Hook mass shooting ever truly happened; another professor was criticized for having students step on the word “Jesus” during a classroom exercise; and the university’s leaders made a disastrous decision to name their football stadium after a for-profit prison operator.
That prison company, Boca Raton-based GEO Group, has been the subject of repeated lawsuits and human-rights complaints. The public outrage ultimately led FAU to back down from the proposed stadium naming.