• Peter Miller

The distance between us (I): Birds of a feather flock together

Sociologist Robert Putnam (2015) refers to social distance as the relational space that separates people, organizations, and/or other entities from one another. When people or groups do not know each other or interact with one another regularly, their mutual understanding, trust, and affection are challenged. On many university campuses, an expansive social distance separates athletics programs from academic units. Identity and proximity differences are often among the factors that contribute to athletics/campus divides.

Substantive campus-level social distances have long-separated individuals who operate in athletics and those who are in academics. Social distances between people are exacerbated by identity and proximity differences. If one shares little in common with another person and rarely interacts with him, he will be prone to misunderstand and distrust the other. Campus leaders and Division 1 athletics leaders, for example, operate in very different worlds of practice and often do not fully understand each other’s work.

A recent survey indicates that about two-thirds of college athletic administrators played college sports and one third of them coached. But the late David Williams, former athletic director at Vanderbilt, was the only recent athletic director or coach I could find who is also a tenured professor. (I spent time with David and asked him if he knew of others – he could not name any.) Many coaches and athletics leaders are not familiar with the daily work of faculty, especially the research-related components. The tenure process is even more difficult to grasp. Similarly, university faculty and academic leaders do not always understand – or have interest in [2]– the multi-level complexities and daily grind of athletics, nor appreciate the different ways coaches and athletic directors are held accountable. Most university presidents are former professors and have a range of expertise. Often, they have had little substantive experience with athletics prior to assuming their roles. Differences in background and preparation certainly do not preclude campus leaders in academics and athletics from working productively alongside one another, but, collectively, they face larger hurdles in understanding each other’s sphere of action than many other groups who emerge from similar fields.

The late David Williams was a rare combination of tenured professor and athletic director.

Sociology teaches us that “birds of a feather flock together” (we spend time with those who are like us) and, at the same time, we are powerfully impacted by proximity.[3] A recurrent theme that has been reiterated in this project is that campus-level identity boundaries are commonly fortified by basic physical distances between buildings and offices. We interact with and come to know those who are near us. On most campuses, athletics facilities and operations are physically isolated.

Big Ten athletic directors’ offices are, for example, an average of one mile away – about a 20-minute walk – from their president/chancellor’s offices. This is, of course, a somewhat arbitrary measure of proximity, but it illustrates an actual substantive challenge facing campuses. Whereas other top campus leaders – presidents, provosts, vice presidents, etc. – tend to operate in relative proximity to one another and to interact frequently on matters of research and academics with which they are familiar, many athletic directors (and their vast staffs) only occasionally set foot on the “academic side.”

Often their interactions with other campus leaders only occur in formal, pre-planned ways – or else in response to crises. Relationships of trust and understanding are difficult to develop in such conditions. Is this a trivial matter? The hundreds of leaders I have spoken with in recent years suggest not. Collective leadership on athletics-related issues tends to require leaders with very different backgrounds, interests, and expertise to make high-stakes public decisions in concert with other leaders with whom they only irregularly interact and commonly do not fully understand. This is not an ideal arrangement for any group, let alone the most visible entity of a large, complex organization.

About how long would it take each Big Ten athletic director to walk to their president’s office?

Josh Whitman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 21 minutes, 1.1 miles

Fred Glass, Indiana University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 24 minutes, 1.2 miles

Gary Barta, University of Iowa

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 3 minutes, 0.1 mile

Damon Evans, University of Maryland

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 14 minutes, 0.7 miles

Warde Manuel, University of Michigan

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 15 minutes, 0.7 miles

Bill Beekman, Michigan State University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 12 minutes, 0.6 miles

Mark Coyle, University of Minnesota

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 9 minutes, 0.4 miles

Bill Moos, University of Nebraska

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 17 minutes, 0.8 miles

Jim Phillips, Northwestern University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 32 minutes, 1.6 miles

Gene Smith, Ohio State University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 24 minutes, 1.2 miles

Sandy Barbour, Penn State University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 23 minutes, 1.2 miles

Mike Bobinski, Purdue University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 7 minutes, 0.4 miles

Patrick Hobbs, Rutgers University

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 1 hour, 3.0 miles

Barry Alvarez, University of Wisconsin

● Distance from Chancellor’s/President’s Office: 17 minutes, 0.8 mile


[1]Smith, M. (2015). Who played and who coached. Sports Business Journal, 18(10), 25.

[2]A study in New Directions for Institutional Research(Lawrence, 2009) found that athletics is not highly prioritized as a campus issue for faculty. From a list of 13 campus governance issue areas, faculty ranked athletics as next to last in importance.

[3]Refer to James Spillane’s (2017) article: “The Elephant in the Schoolhouse: The Role of Propinquity in School Staff Interactions about Teaching” in Sociology of Education.