The committee tasked with choosing Florida Atlantic University's next president turned down state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater on Friday.
Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and two academics were named as finalists for the job.
The surprising decision ended days of speculation over Gov. Rick Scott's choice to replace Atwater in the Florida Cabinet.
"As I said to my staff about accepting an invitation to apply, my passion for serving as Florida's CFO and my commitment to working with my great colleagues for years to come remains undiminished," Atwater wrote in a statement Friday.
The FAU selection committee had doubts about including a politician among the finalists.
"The perception out there might be that this is a politically arranged deal," said member Dick Schmidt, president and CEO of Schmidt Cos.
Schmidt said an experienced politician would bring "baggage" to the university and might struggle to win over the faculty and philanthropic community.
But FAU trustee Abdol Moabery said experience in Tallahassee would be an asset.
"For 20 years, I have watched all the funding go to UF and FSU, and later USF and UCF, and frankly I'm tired of it," Moabery said. "We do need a powerhouse. We need someone who knows this Legislature."
The committee seemed dazzled by LeMieux, who rattled off statistics about FAU and similar universities. One member of the selection committee called the session with LeMieux "the best interview we had in two days."
"He had an outstanding vision for how to bring the university forward," said Ronald Nyhan, an associate professor and president of the Faculty Senate. "He certainly had done a great deal of homework and had a great deal of knowledge about what this university is all about."
Among other ideas, LeMieux said he would expand the medical school. He proposed building a research park in Jupiter and hospitals in Jupiter and Boca Raton. "I want your medical school to be in the top 50 in the country," he said.
LeMieux also offered suggestions for increasing funding while keeping tuition affordable.
"Take a page from what the University of Miami is doing to attract international students," he said, noting that international students pay higher tuition than Florida residents.
Committee member Wendy Link conceded that Atwater did not have the best interview. Other members said he provided vague answers to questions.
The other two finalists are John Kelly, vice president for economic development at Clemson University, and Christopher Earley, dean of the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.
Committee members described Kelly as a decisive leader who could engage the entire community. They praised Earley's enthusiasm and international experience, but were critical of his long-winded answers.
The three finalists have been invited to tour the university and participate in forums next week. A final decision will follow.
Times/Herald staff writers Tia Mitchell and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.