‘Teaching at Quest Was a Transformational Experience’

Quest University has rewritten the rules on university education, and the man holding the pen is Quest University president, Dr. David Helfand.

Before coming to Quest, Helfand spent 35 years of his life at Columbia University, where he was the chairman of the Astronomy department and co-director of the Astrophysics Laboratory. In an interview with the Reporter, he explains his motivation for coming to Quest and his vision for Canada’s first private university.

Q. Where were you born and raised?

A. I grew up in a small town called Mattapoisett in Massachusetts. The town’s name means a peaceful place by the quiet waters, but to me that meant ‘boring’ (laughs). So, I was out of it as soon as I turned 17.

 Q. Tell me a bit about your parents and what kind of influence they had on you?

A. My father, Barney Helfand worked in a factory that made handbags, and women’s purses. He worked there from high school to the age of 65. I think he missed 14 days of work in his whole life. He had a garden, not a small one but almost an acre, and he loved gardening.  So, I never ate avegetable that we had not grown by ourselves until I went away to university.

 My mom also worked in the same factory. When both I and my brother were five or six, we were taught to cook. It remains my passion today, as you can probably tell (pats his belly and laughs).

Politically, my father was a democrat, and at that time in Massachusetts, there were not many people who voted for John F. Kennedy, and my dad was one of them who did.

Q. How did you get interested in astronomy?

A. So, unlike 98 per cent of my colleagues, who built their telescopes when they were kids, and knew all the constellations, I had no interest in astronomy.

I went to Amherst college, which is one of the top colleges in the US, and I went to be a theatre major, but then for some reason I don’t remember, I took a course in astronomy.

It fascinated me that our sun is very normal for a star, except it doesn’t have a companion. Most other stars do and they orbit around and cross each other, and there is a constant brightness, until one star comes to cover the other and then there is less light.

When I actually saw how that worked with a telescope that was really fascinating to me. I wrote a long paper about that and well, that was the beginning of it.

I got my PhD in 1979 from the University of Massachusetts, and I had four job offers, and one of them was to go to Columbia and do something completely different.

At that time, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and NASA were working to build the first X-ray Telescope, and they were going to launch it in 1978. That meant if I moved to Columbia, I could work on this project.

It turned out to be a brilliant project, and I just fell in love with New York City, and I didn’t want to live anywhere else. It was tremendously exciting.

Q. You pushed for quite a few changes at Columbia?

A. Well, I’m known as a troublemaker. Since 1919, Columbia had this core curriculum and you have all the 1,100 students reading from the same curriculum and it had not changed since 1947.

I got there in 1977 and it had zero science, zero maths, it was just humanities. So, 27 years later, I managed to add a course called the Frontiers of Science.

Q. When did you first hear about Quest and Squamish?

A. Well, (David) Strangway had already known about this course I had introduced. He called and said ‘David we have heard about you, and we are starting a brand new university and we want you to tell us how to integrate science into a local arts curriculum.’

To start a whole curriculum from scratch, it had a certain appeal for me. This was the summer of 2005, and I thought it was a very intriguing idea. The idea of starting with a blank slate, and thinking about what would be the best way to educate the 20th century kids, and prepare them for this brutal century.

We hired five faculty members, and we started building the curriculum. I was really curious about how it would all work, and I was even more curious about what kind of students would be the first students to come here.

Q. How has been your experience?

A. Well, the distressing things about universities in the States and also in Canada is that the credentials are what counts. No one really cares about what goes on besides that.

I mean lecturing is easy to do, I won every teaching award at Columbia, but I didn’t experiment. Here, we had 72 students, and six other faculty, and Quest was a transformational experience. For the first time, I felt like I was having an impact on the intellectual life of these students.

In of our math ‘blocks’, recently one of our tutors was teaching spherical trigonometry. Each students got a Lucite sphere, and we saw them walking around with it everywhere. Their tutor showed them a theorem that was published in 1800s, and they found a logical flaw in it.  

 Q. Those who teach at Quest are called tutors, not professors. Why?

A. The word professor means someone who professes, like saying, I have knowledge and you don’t, and I pore my knowledge into you. That is not our model here at all. We talk to students here and work with them one on one in small class sizes.

Everyone has the same office, everyone has the same title, the same rank, and we are all tutors here.

Q. What are future plans for Quest?

A. We have a very specific plan. The campus was built for 640 students. We are at 430 now, and the plan is to reach the 640 number in four more years.

The campus was laid out to accommodate double that, but that is really beyond my life time.

Q. What can we do to integrate Squamish with Quest?

A. We have tried so hard in the past. We have a lot of events, plays, festivals, and we advertise it all, and then three people show up. I don’t know why it’s so hard to get people up here, it’s like this is some other world they don’t want to come. It’s really weird.

When Greg Gardner was the mayor, we set up a committee, and we were going to work on it, and it was going to be a big thing. It never met again. I have met Corien Speaker now and waiting to hear back on this.




  1. Larry Murray says:

    Two things – Quest has achieved in such a short time what most other education institutions have not even started to think about – that it is all about learning. Not text books or professors or exams or ‘courses’. Yes, these all play a part but real learning is not the central focus – it is at Quest.
    Secondly – Good Gosh Almighty…Squamish has two universities – one historic and focuses on local needs and one state of the art and focusing on the future. But, does Squamish understand this wealth sitting in our own backyard? Unfortunately, not yet. But some of us are trying to overcome this dilemma.
    Well Done David, and your Quest Team.

  2. Jim Harvey says:

    I’m sure that one day Quest will find it’s place in the fabric of the community. It is such an exceptional school with outstanding students smack dab in the heart of an incredible environment and in this lies some of the reason for lack of engagement between school and community. Clearly there is no lack of engagement between the students and their school (see MacLean’s University Rankings) . Similarly, the new young demographic that continues to grow in Squamish is engaged in raising their kids, starting careers and are immersed in the outdoors that surrounds us. I think there is little time left over for extra-curricular engagement on the part of students, the Quest staff and many in our community….but it will come. Give it time. I, for one, am glad that I am finally getting good old fashioned e-mails from Quest informing me of what’s going on at the school .