David Helfand does not drink coffee for three reasons.
One: He can’t stand the flavor. (He hates tiramisu, too.)
Two: He doesn’t get along well with caffeine.
Three: While he may be the creator of Frontiers of Science, chair of the Astronomy Department, co-chair of the Astrophysics Laboratory, former president of the American Astronomical Society, on the board of directors for the American Institute of Physics, treasurer and executive committee member of ScienceCounts, former president of a radical university in Canada, the man who rewrote humankind’s understanding of neutron stars, award-winning author, and fabulous chef, Helfand does not have very good hand-eye-lip coordination. “I’ve never learned, to this day, how to drink anything hot without burning my lips, my tongue, the roof of my mouth, and everything else.”
He lists off these reasons to me as we sit side by side in the Long Island Rail Road waiting room at Penn Station. Per his meticulous email instructions, we first met at Starbucks (the one to the right of the subway turnstiles, just opposite the LIRR Ticket Booths), but moved here because the background music was too loud. He wasn’t planning to get coffee anyway.
Eight days later, he’s sitting with me again, this time at his desk on the 10th floor of Pupin, taking a long time to respond to my question: “How do you feel about being profiled?”
After a series of very long pauses and a short tangent about his relationship with Spectator over the last 30 years, he decides to answer my question with a story about a book by renowned portrait photographer, Mariana Cook, called Faces of Science. The book is composed of black-and-white portraits of famous scientists (Helfand says he was only included because Cook needed more beards), each accompanied by a short autobiographical essay.
“And so I began mine something to the effect that,” he clears his throat, “we all have our life narratives that we construct, of which there’s a reasonable semblance to reality, but it becomes a story.” His little autobiography includes an amusing anecdote from his undergraduate years at Amherst College about deciding to switch his major from theater to astronomy while on a class trip in Arizona—one he had shared with me in our first interview. “That all happened, but it’s such a part of a rote recitation of my life now that it feels more like a story than reality.”
“But of course,” Helfand continues, “our entire brains have been evolved for several hundred thousand years to listen to stories.”
This is his first lesson when giving people advice on public speaking—a lesson he seems to live by. I’ve learned a lot about Helfand over the past few weeks, but above all, I’ve learned that he is a storyteller. And like a child being read to, I’ve hung on to every word.
He tells me some stories about growing up in a tiny town on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, called Mattapoisett, where all of the vegetables he ate were homegrown and where his terrific, short, Armenian drama and music teacher eventually got fired because his “boring high school in this boring town” was too conservative for avant-garde ’60s theater. Several more stories are from his time at Amherst—colorful anecdotes about the squash team, the free busses that connected the Five College Astronomy Department, and the tough, short, German astronomy professor at Smith who bought his class plane tickets to Arizona and changed the course of Helfand’s life.
His stories are meandering and vivid. Before Helfand arrives at the anecdote about how he initially became involved with Quest University Canada, the “radical” teaching-focused school in Squamish, British Columbia, he tells the tale of David Strangway, its founder, before he conceived of Quest—from the Canadian geophysicist’s childhood in Angola to his work with moon rocks in Houston. I then learn about Stewart Blusson, the geologist who discovered diamonds in Canada and wrote a check for $100 million (“which I guess was like lunch money”) to buy the land in Squamish, British Columbia upon which Quest was founded.
Helfand’s involvement with Quest began in 2005 with a phone call from Strangway. Or it began 28 years earlier, when Helfand and Darcy Kelley, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia and longtime friend, began the protracted process of developing a course that would integrate science into Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Twenty-seven years after Helfand and Kelley started to develop the course, and 85 years after the Core itself was introduced, Frontiers of Science was launched in 2004.
After being forced to retire at 65 by a Canadian law that has since been abolished, Strangway had a vision for designing and founding a brand new, “radically different” university from scratch that focused entirely on the undergraduate education experience—on teaching, instead of research. Being in the industry, he had heard the big news about Frontiers of Science. And being in the process of developing a new undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, it is no surprise that he took great interest in Fro Sci.
“So I just got a phone call out of the blue,” Helfand tells me. Strangway pitched him his vision for Quest and Helfand was onboard. “Since it had taken me 27 years to get science into the Core Curriculum, and I knew that in 27 more years I’ll be dead so I’ll never add another course to Columbia’s curriculum, starting from scratch had a certain appeal.” I laugh.
About three years earlier, Helfand makes almost exactly the same joke in an interview with a Canadian publication called University Affairs. While our conversation feels absolutely organic, this quip included, I wonder how much of Helfand’s epic dialogue comes to him naturally on the spot, and how much is part of the arsenal of compelling stories that makes up the “rote recitation” of the storyteller’s life.
Helfand’s role at Quest was not always president. He first joined the team to help design the university from the ground up—as he described it an interview for Spectator in 2011, a university “for students and problems of the 21st century, rather than the 19th century.”
While an academic year at most universities comprises two semesters, separated by a four-month-long summer break, Quest operates on a block system. (Of course, I get an exquisite backstory from Helfand about the 19th-century agricultural origins of the traditional system and why it’s now totally archaic.) Each month-long block at Quest is devoted to just one class, and there are blocks offered twelve months a year, so students can choose which months they want to take off. The first two years are Quest’s 16-course foundation, which he also described as the “Core Curriculum on steroids.”
The final block of the foundation years is called the “Question Block,” during which students have the entire month to dream up a question that they’ll spend the next two years exploring—which is like their version of designing a major. Their question must include an advisor, half a dozen books, a set of advanced courses, and a plan for a two- to four-month-long experiential learning adventure off campus. At the end of the four years, this all culminates in a major paper and a public presentation.
After playing a crucial role in the development of Quest’s pioneering pedagogical model mostly remotely, Helfand made the move out to Squamish in the summer of 2007. Doors were set to open that fall, and he was set to be one of its founding “tutors”—Quest’s word for professors.
“It was awful as a place to live,” Helfand remembers. (Squamish and its spectacularly beautiful snow-capped mountains actually made it into the New York Times’ "52 Places to Go in 2015,” which featured the town’s skiing, rock climbing, kiteboarding, birding, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. He concedes that “if you’re into those things, it’s a great place. But I’m not into those things. I’m sort of more into good restaurants and opera.”)
But the pedagogical experience made living in Squamish well worth it. In a 2011 article in the Squamish Chief (the town’s local paper), Helfand is quoted saying, “I have been lecturing at Columbia for a third of a century … but I feel I only began truly teaching when I came to Quest.”
Classes at Quest are centered around experiential learning and, above all, collaboration. Almost all of the work is done in teams. “And I came back [to Columbia] all excited about this new way of teaching,” Helfand recounts, “and they would not talk to each other. It drove me nuts. So that was depressing.”
Quest and Columbia radically diverge on an institutional level, as well as curricularly. Quest has no separate departments and no faculty hierarchy. At an institution with a history like Columbia’s, Helfand is largely bound to operating within the traditional, archaic structures he so vocally opposes—but even here Helfand challenges them by rejecting the tenure system. The University offered him tenure in the early ’80s, but he refused to accept it, instead proposing an alternative faculty review system—which after two years of meetings and one change in provost, Columbia agreed to implement just for him.
“When you’re starting with a blank piece of paper, you can do anything. When you’re starting with a 260-year-old university, there’s many things you can’t do. But you nibble away at the edges.”
After a logistically rocky but academically inspiring first year at Quest, Helfand’s leave was up and he returned to Columbia. Although he had resumed his position as chair of the astronomy department, and was technically supposed to be teaching Fro Sci, Helfand ended up returning to Quest in August of 2008 because the school was having so many institutional and financial problems. Helfand had planned to stay just for the first block to teach Cornerstone—the first class Quest students take—again.
On the very last day of classes, he got a phone call that would change his life. “This is so dramatic, I have to tell you this story.”
He was scheduled to fly back to New York at 9:00 the next morning. A Canadian magazine reporter and a photographer, who were working on a story about research and teaching at universities in Canada, was sitting in on his class. The students were deep into an intense discussion about the declaration of human rights (“really an appalling Cold War document from the 1940s, it’s all about rights and not about responsibilities”) when someone knocked on the door.
“And I said, ‘What? I’m teaching! And the reporter’s here!’ And he said, ‘You have to come out.’ And so I said, ‘I can’t come out, I’m teaching!’ And he started again, ’No you really have to come out.” It turned out the chairman of the board of trustees was on the phone.
“‘So David,’ he tells me, ‘We’ve decided that we only have two options. Either we close the university on Friday or you have to agree to be president—and we only have 15 minutes.’” You already know that he said yes.
His wife had been keeping tabs on his life in Squamish via Skype. “And so that afternoon,” Helfand laughs, “I got on Skype, and she said, ‘So what happened today?’ And I said, ‘Well, they made me president.’ And she froze, but not because there wasn’t enough bandwidth. It was like, ‘you’re out of your fucking mind!’
And I said, ‘Yes, I am out of my mind.’”
It really was a little crazy. Splitting his time between the two campuses (and two countries) meant that on Mondays, his redeye flight from British Columbia would land at JFK at 6:00 a.m., and three hours later he would be talking science to a lecture hall full of sleepy Columbia College students.
These days, Helfand no longer makes the 12-hour commute he was pulling off in 2008, but does spend over six hours on public transportation almost every week going to and returning from his house on the North Fork of Long Island. He doesn’t even like Greenport, Long Island, but makes the trek to visit his wife, Jada Rowland. “I made a terrible mistake about 10 years ago,” he tells me. He goes on to explain that the terrible mistake was building a huge 45 feet by 30 feet studio complete with skylights for Rowland, an artist. Now he can’t get her out of there. “And I want to see her!” he laughs.
That’s why he’s here with me, sitting on the metal seats of the LIRR waiting room, telling his stories.
Have fun leafing through our seventh issue!