• By: Grace Giesbrecht

His students call him professor: Alp Oran on an unfair dichotomy between university educators.

All tomorrow’s innovators, doctors, and scientists start their higher education journey somewhere. For most, a large part of that beginning is in a undergraduate lab, learning the practical skills necessary to further their education. 

Who teaches these students these important skills? It varies from university to university, but often lab coordinators—administrative staff, not faculty—teach these courses.

Alp Oran is one such lab coordinator at the University of Ottawa. He teaches 3rd and 4th year biology labs and enjoys instructing student in practical skills, but is troubled by the limitations lab coordinators face compared to their faculty counterparts. It is an unfair dichotomy, and one that Oran is working to change.

Oran became a lab instructor after, during the course of his PhD, he realized that continuing on to a career in academia was not the right choice for him. Instead, he decided to apply education to education and sought teaching-oriented jobs after completing his doctorate. 

In Oran’s undergraduate teaching labs at the University of Ottawa, students learn best laboratory practices and relevant techniques in molecular and cellular biology. “They’re very authentic, experiential learning experiences…I like doing something that actually has value and a practical outcome,” he says.

Oran greatly enjoys his work and is grateful for the position. He considers teaching, developing, and passing his own skill set on to students a “noble endeavour.”

That being said, the lab coordinator position limits how Oran can pass on these skills: “I do the best that I can with the opportunities presented to myself,” Oran explains. “We don’t have the same kind of resources that faculty members enjoy.” Though his courses provide the same quality education as his faculty counterparts, he plans them with limited resources. 

Beyond these limits, however, lies a deeper issue: though he and other lab coordinators design and teach quality courses, and many have similar qualifications to professors, they are not faculty and do not receive the benefits that faculty positions provide.

Faculty members teach, research, receive recognition, have potential for advancement, and higher salaries. Administrative staff who teach courses, on the other hand, perform similar duties and scholarly activities as well but receive little to no recognition and are paid significantly less— “living wages less” according to Oran—than faculty doing the same work.

“There are all these signs that point to that overlap,” Oran says. “[For example] my students call me professor.” This overlap forms the troubling grey zone between faculty and administration where lab coordinators and other such teaching administrators land.

One of the primary causes of this overlap is new teaching stream faculty, or professors with a higher ratio of teaching to scholarship—like lab coordinators. Oran explains that this addition creates accidental overlaps that form the unfair dichotomy. 

This frustration is shared among other administrators at the University of Ottawa and beyond. Many academic universities operate on similar unfair dichotomies. “It’s not a unique situation,” Oran says.

But such an overlap cannot be admitted or changed without serious cost increases for the university. Not one to stand by while he and his colleagues are not treated fairly for the important work they do, Oran is working within the system to make changes. “I’m a big equity and fairness type of person,” he says. “That’s what I love about being part of a union—that we can call to task when we see instances of unfair practice.” 

Negotiating with administration from his position with the union is the way Oran intends to help dismantle the unfair dichotomy between faculty and administrators. His role in the union is to point out these overlaps for all members, not just lab coordinators, and help bargain for a better, fairer system.

“This is the way I hope change will happen.” Oran says “Through the union, while highlighting the problem and, hopefully, arguing at the bargaining table.”