IE grad tackles national education reform

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
Anthony Miller hit the ground running a year ago and hasn’t stopped yet.

Anthony MillerAs President Barack Obama’s pick for the nation’s deputy secretary of education, Miller has had to sprint to keep up with his new job. But he doesn’t seem to mind; he thinks fast, talks fast, and seems energized by the hectic pace.

When he signed on for the federal position, Miller (BSIE ’89) traded life as a private equity operating partner and management consultant, who had worked with school organizations in California, for oversight of the nation’s education system. In his role as second in command at the Department of Education, he is now charged with overseeing the day-to-day implementation and development of policies, recommendations, and initiatives that align with Obama’s education goals. Miller says his background in industrial engineering, with its systems view and focus on optimization, is a great fit with his new responsibilities. So is the professional life he led after leaving Purdue.

Miller was introduced to engineering through Purdue’s Multiethnic Introduction to Engineering (MITE) program for high school juniors. The subject suited his interest in all things mechanical, mathematic, and scientific. Industrial engineering was also a close fit with his parallel interest in business and a desire to understand and optimize production systems. He got an in-depth look at systems as a co-op student at Caterpillar. He rounded out his undergraduate experience with two years as president of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, as a resident assistant, and with membership on the governing board of The Exponent.

As western regional marketing manager for Delco Electronics, based in Denver and then Southern California, he developed and implemented original equipment manufacturer and distributor channel marketing programs. The experience gave him technical and marketing skills, but he wanted to add financial and strategic management acumen. He enrolled at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which had a curriculum that included time overseas at its Center for Technology and Innovation in Kyoto, Japan. He was also introduced to the education field through work with the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which he joined full time after completing his MBA in 1992. His areas of expertise were growth strategies, operating performance improvement and cost cutting, and company restructuring.

At the time, one of McKinsey & Company’s pro bono clients was the Los Angeles Unified School District, which sought models of education reform and the implementation of transformative programs. Miller provided oversight of the project. He also worked with the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, examined best practices in school board governance models, and studied ways in which business communities could support education reform.

By the time Obama came knocking in January 2009, Miller had been involved with education reform for over 10 years. Moreover, his business experience, work aligning school budgets and operating plans, and time spent designing metrics and processes for monitoring district-wide performance would be useful as the Department of Education faced the challenge of overseeing some $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid to education and a widespread call for substantial education reform across the country.

“I am really drawing on my cumulative experience in this role of understanding school systems — large, complex organizations — and how you blend strategy with operations and finance. Understanding the complexity of large school districts and how they interface with the state and federal levels is complicated. That’s the system dynamic,” Miller says.

Miller admits that his federal assignment is a tough one. But, he says, it’s no more difficult than the high-pressure private-equity sector. When he spoke with Engineering Impact last fall, he was driving from the airport to his office in Washington, D.C., following a weekend of meetings in Chicago with legislators and school officers. He was clearly invigorated by both the trip and the world of education.

Anthony MillerIn his first year on the job, Miller says he has gained an appreciation for federal programs. As proof, he launches into a fluent recitation of the administration’s key education reform priorities: establishing college- and career-ready standards that are internationally benchmarked to prepare U.S. children for a globally competitive world; recruiting and better preparing teachers and school leaders; underwriting professional development; and implementing effective data systems.

Miller says his nomination for the position of deputy secretary of education came as a total surprise. He was working at the time as director of Silver Lake, a private equity firm with over $15 billion in capital, and says the decision to leave was a tough choice. But, he says, the time was right.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity,” he says. “The president embodies and is committed to education reform. We have $100 billion [in stimulus funds] to invest in education. The education secretary is pragmatic and puts children’s interests above those of adults. And a major piece of legislation (No Child Left Behind) is up for reauthorization. Those stars don’t align often. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”