Astronomy professor David Helfand, who pioneered the Frontiers of Science course and has chaired the astronomy department since 2002, is taking a three-year leave of absence from Columbia. Last week Helfand was named the full-time president of Quest University, a Canadian liberal arts college, which opened in 2007. Helfand helped found Quest, and for the last four years he has taught there part-time, commuting each week between New York City and Squamish, a small city in western Canada. Helfand said that leaving Columbia for Quest—even temporarily—was a tough decision, especially since his wife will stay in New York City. "It was a very difficult position, because I love my life living on the Upper West Side of New York and teaching at Columbia, and doing science, and I'm not doing much of that now," he said. Helfand was also elected president of the American Astronomical Society, which is based in Washington D.C., last month. Astronomy professor Kathryn Johnston said that Helfand will be missed by his colleagues, but that his "energy is remarkable" and she doubts he will stay away from Columbia completely for the next three years. "I for one always seem to get immediate replies to my emails no matter how many things he seems to have going on," Johnston said in an email. "So I am not concerned that we will not be able to ask advice if/when we need it." Astronomy professor Frits Paerels has replaced Helfand as chair of the astronomy department. Helfand, who has taught at Columbia for more than 30 years, said he was drawn to the Quest job by the school's unique approach to interdisciplinary education, which he helped to develop. Quest has no departments and no majors, and students spend their first two years taking what Helfand called the "Core Curriculum on steroids." Students spend their last two years examining an interdisciplinary question. All classes have 20 students or fewer. Classes at Quest are also taught in blocks—students spend a month taking only one class, and then move on to the next class. "I gradually sort of got sucked into this concept of starting a university from scratch, which was really designed for students and problems of the 21st century, rather than the 19th century," Helfand said. Columbia and other old American universities are "set up to discourage" the kind of "genuine learning" that goes on at Quest, Helfand added, noting that he hopes to integrate some of the teaching techniques he has learned at Quest when he returns to Columbia in three years. "Columbia is a unique institution in a unique city, and if there's anywhere where there's a possibility of fresh and creative ways to educate people I'd like to think it's at Columbia," he said.
Columbia Spectator Staff