I'm an assistant professor at an undergraduate institution with significant research expectations. A number of my colleagues insist on calling our school director their boss, which I find bizarre. In my training, the head of an academic unit is a distinguished colleague to whom we are indebted to -- they sacrifice research time to perform necessary but tedious bureaucratic work -- but not a 'boss'. What is the norm at most institutions? Is there a division between primarily teaching and research institutions?
While it is indeed bizarre and there are many ways in which a school director would not be the same as a boss in a traditional workplace, it is technically correct. An academic unit director such as a department chair, head, school director etc is technically the supervisor of everyone in that unit. Faculty are still employees and have someone above them (a person they “report to” in traditional-workplace lingo) in the organizational chart. If the employee misbehaves, the director would be the person who would need to handle the situation; if the employee has some special life situation or a request that needs accommodating, the director is the person they need to see; etc. These are all functions of a boss or supervisor.
Two notable aspects of an academic director’s work that make them rather different than traditional bosses are:
The academic supervisor does not have as many powers as a traditional boss, and is constrained in many ways by the institution’s policies and by the academic culture of shared governance. In particular, he/she can’t usually make hiring and firing decisions. And faculty members with tenure cannot get fired anyway, so the workplace dynamics and psychology of how people relate to their “boss” are much different than in other places.
In many academic units the directorship rotates every few years. This results in a situation where the person who is your boss today could be your underling tomorrow. Again, this frequent change in the organizational hierarchy drastically changes people’s perception of what it means to be the boss, to the extent that the word “boss” no longer sounds very appropriate to describe the role of the supervisor. But as I said, it is technically correct.