When Florida Atlantic University hired John W. Kelly in January to be the seventh president in its 50-year history, one of the college’s board of trustees was quoted as saying that the former vice president of economic development at Clemson University was the “safer” choice, compared to the two politicians also in the running.

On the one hand, you couldn’t fault FAU for wanting to avoid even a hint of controversy. During a two-year stretch of embarrassments under former president Mary Jane Saunders, the main campus in Boca had become the collegiate embodiment of Murphy’s Law.

One minute the school was naming its football stadium after a for-profit prison, the next its head football coach was being accused of drug use. Two professors made national headlines—one for asking students to stomp on the word “Jesus” during a class- room exercise, another for personal blogs that questioned both the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Despite the game-changing addition of a college of medicine, as well as ongoing connections to world-renowned research institutes Scripps and Max Planck, FAU’s reputation was taking a piñata-like beating.

But lest anyone think that Kelly, 60, has come to Boca to play it safe, think again. After nearly three decades at Clemson, 17 of them in various vice presidential roles, the man with a Ph.D. in horticulture is intent on cultivating what he sees as the school’s untapped potential.

As evidenced by his thoughtful 90-minute conversation with Boca Raton, the South Carolina native brings the necessary ingredients to his new post—moxie, vision, decisiveness and a heaping helping of Southern charm. It’s a recipe that FAU is counting on to keep the past out of its present.

For more from the big man on campus, pick up the September/October 2014 issue of Boca Raton magazine.