Breaking Barriers: Whitman Alumni Are Redefining Workplace Roles, Leading Through Innovation and Technology and Carving Out Diverse Paths to Success
MBA/Executive Master of Public Administration
I think it speaks volumes when education survives the test of time in a changing world. I would easily say that this program gave me an academic foundation for the rest of my career.
Whether it’s educating its students and faculty on issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion; fostering new ventures through research, innovation and entrepreneurship; or tapping into the experience, generosity and leadership of its vast alumni network, the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University is working to break barriers every day with a campus culture that continues to evolve, advance and promote its students with the support and skills they need to not only succeed in the business world but become leaders that are truly making a difference.
Reaching for the Stars and Stripes
When Kathleen Miller ’94 MBA/EMPA was accepted into the Army Comptroller Program (now called the Defense Comptroller Program) at the Whitman School, she saw it as a stepping stone to her success. At the time, she didn’t have any idea that those steps would eventually take her to the United States Department of Defense (DOD), where this past August she was confirmed as deputy under secretary of defense (comptroller) after being appointed by President Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68, H’09. The position helps oversee financial policy, financial management systems and business modernization efforts, as well as an annual budget of over $700 billion.
Miller’s path to such a high-ranking position within the federal government began in the 1980s after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in economics. She started working for the U.S. government in Germany, where the best job she could find at the time was an accounting position. “They told me I was horribly overqualified, but this was as close as I could get to what I had studied in school,” she says. While it was not what she had hoped for, it became her introduction to the world of federal financial management, and she quickly found that she could make an impact.
When she learned that the Army would put her through the Defense Comptroller Program at the Whitman School, she knew she had to apply. “So many senior leaders, both military and civilian had spoken very highly of the program or had graduated from there, so I saw it as a great opportunity,” she says.
Miller was accepted and relocated to Syracuse to earn her MBA in the yearlong program. “It was not just the content of the program. It was the mixture of courses focusing on the needs of the defense program, as well as financial management,” she says. “So much good information came out of that experience that I still refer back to it today. I think it speaks volumes when education survives the test of time in a changing world. I would easily say that this program gave me an academic foundation for the rest of my career.”
She also has a fondness for the cohort who went through the program with her—both uniformed military officers and Department of the Army civilians like herself. The program was also integrated with some traditional Whitman MBA courses that included students in the private sector. “This was great because inside the DOD we get comfortable working with each other and doing things in a particular way,” she says. “Mixing things up really helped us learn important lessons in team building and collaboration.”
She completed the program knowing that her next assignment with the Army would take her to Virginia. About a year later, she received a call asking her to apply for a job with the Pentagon. She wasn’t sure she wanted to make the move to Washington, D.C., but, not one to shy away from a challenge, she took the position. For the next few decades, she held a multitude of notable roles with the Army, including the assistant deputy chief of staff and principal assistant deputy chief of staff, as well as acting director and deputy director of the Army Budget Office. She also spent three years at the Internal Revenue Service as the associate chief financial officer for internal finance and the acting deputy chief financial officer.
In what she refers to as “late in her career,” she received a call in May 2021 asking her to consider putting her hat in the ring to be a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee. “I was awed and honored, but I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “I could have stayed in my previous job as administrative assistant to the secretary of the U.S. Army, eventually retired from that position and been very proud of my career. But I saw this offer as an opportunity to come full circle back to where I started in the resource management field in what I suspect will be a very challenging time frame.”
In August 2021, she was confirmed by the Senate as the deputy under secretary of defense (comptroller).
She acknowledges that she ran into plenty of barriers as both a civilian and a woman but says she never let those factors stand in her way. “I was one who was never intimidated by barriers, even though I know I am an oddity in what is a more male-dominated field,” she says. “I’ve found that you can break down a lot of barriers with hard work, competence, imagination and emotional intelligence. People want other people around them who know the right answers. I always did 120% of my homework and had the confidence and imagination to understand how to be a voice that’s heard in the room.”
After only a few months in her new role, she is proud of the work she is doing to serve her country. “The work can be incredibly complex,” she says. “My role is to justify funding that supports the entire United States Department of Defense, everyone from the people to the training to the weapons systems. It is an amazing privilege to support our men and women in uniform, to help Congress understand our budget requests and execute the funding for the good of our nation. I never imagined, even a year ago, that I’d hold this position, and I am incredibly grateful to the president for appointing me.”
By Caroline Reff