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David Helfand reflects back on a decade at the head of Quest University

Stepping down as president in August, Dr. Helfand discusses his role at this unique Canadian experiment in postsecondary education


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David Helfand, president and vice-chancellor of Quest University Canada, announced earlier this year that he’ll be stepping down from his post and leaving the institution at the end of August. From the start, Quest has been a bold experiment in higher education, billing itself as Canada’s first independent, not-for-profit, secular university. Built in picturesque Squamish, B.C. about halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, the university has introduced many innovations: it offers only one degree, a bachelor of arts and sciences, has no departments, and students take just one four-week course at a time through its block plan.

Dr. Helfand joined Quest in 2005 as an adviser and was a visiting tutor for the university’s inaugural semester in the fall of 2007 before being appointed president in September 2008. He came to Quest from Columbia University in New York City, where he has spent 38 years as a professor of astronomy and served for many years as chair of the department. In 2011, he was elected president of the American Astronomical Society. He is also known to TV audiences in the U.S. through his appearances on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic’s The Known Universe and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Dr. Helfand recently spoke to University Affairs about his time at Quest.

University Affairs: How is Quest University doing?

Dr. Helfand: We started in the fall of 2007 with 73 students and seven faculty members, and as of this fall we’ll be at our maximum capacity of about 700 students and about 50 faculty members. As one of my colleagues said when we opened, the main criterion for being accepted as a student was being a carbon-based life form. This year we had 931 applications for 200 slots. We’ve grown remarkably steadily at 20 percent per year compounded in applications.

UA: What is the make-up of the student body?

Dr. Helfand: We’re just about 50 percent Canadian students, about 35 percent U.S. students and 15 percent from 41 other countries around the world.

UA: What attracted you to Quest?

Dr. Helfand: When I first got to Columbia University in the 1970s, I was delighted to see that it had not abandoned its general education requirements for undergraduates. That is, the incoming first- and second-year students had a required set of courses that everybody took in small seminars. It’s called the core curriculum and it was established in 1919 and hasn’t changed much in the last 75 years. But I was simultaneously appalled that this curriculum consisted of seven humanities courses, zero science courses, zero math courses and zero social sciences courses. Being young and naïve, I set about to add math and science classes so that we’d have a complete core curriculum. And, 27 years later, I succeeded in adding one course to Columbia’s core curriculum. It now consists of eight courses – seven which haven’t changed since 1937 and one science course which all first-year students have to take.

The year I accomplished that, which was 2004-2005, I got a call from David Strangway – who, of course, was Quest’s visionary (and founding president) – and he said, “David, I’ve heard what  you’ve done integrating science into a liberal arts curriculum at Columbia. We’re starting a brand new university from scratch and I want you to come out and tell us about it.” I did the obvious calculation that in 27 more years I’ll be dead so I’ll never add another course to Columbia’s curriculum. And, therefore, starting with a blank piece of paper to design a university was sort of intriguing. I was going to do an alumni fundraising talk for Columbia in Seattle and I said, “I’m coming out in a month, is that OK?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s fine, just come up for the day.” That was 10 years ago, so I got reeled in.

UA: How were those early days? Were you ever skeptical whether this great experiment would succeed?

Dr. Helfand: I quickly realized how great an experiment it was and how precious it was. There were many times that it was not at all obvious that it would succeed, for a variety of reasons, none of them pedagogical. There’s a reason why people don’t start universities all the time, because it’s hard.

UA: At one point, in regards to Quest, you said you were creating a university for the 21st century. Could you explain what you meant?

Dr. Helfand: Throughout human history, information has been limited, difficult to access and very expensive. But information has now become virtually unlimited. Everything humankind knows is two swipes away on your phone. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s free. So our fundamentally 19th-century notion of education – that someone who looks like me, and has a full beaker of information, pours little bits of information into all your empty beakers and then asks you, as students, to regurgitate it on command – is fundamentally atavistic in this age in which we’re flooded with information. So what we need to do is make education into something that teaches people how to find, and then more importantly validate, information and then to combine that information in unique and creative ways that produce something of value to the individual and to society, and that requires moving beyond the 19th-century boundaries of disciplines.

My favourite example is climate change. Climate change is not going to be solved by geophysical fluid dynamicists. We need those because they build the big general circulation models, but unless you understand and know how to talk to economists and psychologists and political scientists, as well as physicists, chemists and oceanographers, we’re not going to solve this problem, as evidenced by the complete lack of progress we’ve made on it.

UA: Quest is, by Canadian standards, very expensive to attend (tuition is $31,000 plus room and board). Some would claim that makes it elitist? What would you say?

Dr. Helfand: As you probably know, I’m American, and the word “elite” has a different meaning in the U.S. It means high-quality; it’s not an evil word. But first, let me be precise: Quest is not expensive. Quest is cheaper by about $2,000 a year per student than the average Canadian public university. The only difference is – you phrased your statement correctly – Quest is more expensive to attend. That’s true if your family has the resources to pay for it. But, with our modest student body of 600, last year we awarded $10.2 million of financial aid. So, in fact some students attend for free and some students attend at a cost no different than if they were going to a Canadian public institution. We are striving to create a need-based system, which is similar to the so-called elite schools in the U.S., in which attendance is based on merit and not on ability to pay. However, we’re a young university. We’ve got 250 alumni, not 250,000, and we don’t have a billion-dollar endowment. But our ability to raise money to support this type of education increases each year.

UA: You have spent 38 years on the faculty at Columbia, a large, traditional, research-intensive university. Quest is very different, with no departmental barriers, no majors, the block system for courses … Could this ever work in a traditional university?

Dr. Helfand: Some things could work, and some things would be hard. One marked difference between our approach to education and the standard approach is that our approach is collaborative, not competitive. The Conference Board of Canada is doing this big study of postsecondary education. At one of their forums, they had someone from IBM, someone form the City of Calgary, someone from a pipeline company, somebody from financial services, and someone who hires for a non-profit. They were asked, what are you not getting from today’s university graduates that your organization needs? They all said the same thing: they need people who can effectively communicate in writing and speaking, but most importantly they all said we want people who can collaborate with people from different backgrounds, different ages, across departments in my company, so that we can solve problems. And we don’t get that at all. We have a model (at Quest) that is highly collaborative such that students have to do research, make presentations, solve problems, do all kinds of things working together, and the consequence is we turn out highly collaborative graduates. That costs nothing to implement except for a change of mindset, and that can be done anywhere.

UA: Professors at Quest don’t have tenure. Does that matter?

Dr. Helfand: Well, you probably don’t know this, but I don’t have tenure at Columbia either. When I was offered it I refused to accept it. After a two-year battle, I won and I have five-year renewable contracts. So I had a longstanding problem with the tenure system three decades before Quest came along. But I had nothing to do with the policy at Quest – that was already established. I would say it makes very little difference. Tenure has no legal standing, it’s a custom. But to me it has two fundamental problems. One is that it does far more to deprive academic freedom to those who don’t have it than it does to protect the academic freedom of those who do. Witness the legions of adjunct and sessional faculty now, which now exceed the number of regular faculty, and they have no say in anything and really are undervalued enormously. And the other problem is that I worry it selects the wrong type of people to be university professors. What I fear is that those who are willing to work really hard for six years to achieve a lifetime job without possibility of review may not have the ideal personality type to advance the frontiers of knowledge. It seems to me that people who are somewhat more entrepreneurial, self-assured and less risk-averse would make a valuable contribution to universities.

UA: At Quest, years one and two are foundation years, followed by the concentration years three and four. The key feature of those final two years is that students must devise a question that will define their final two years of study. Where did that idea come from?

Dr. Helfand: We hired the first five faculty, not counting me, about a year and a half before we opened and our first focus was on the foundation program because we had a whole set of courses that we had to develop from scratch. Then, a few months before we opened, we said, OK this is going to work for the first two years, but what the hell are we going to do in the next two years, because we don’t have department and we’re not going to have these classical majors. So, one of the founding tutors came up with this idea of phrasing [a student’s area of concentration] in the form of a question.

Near the end of the second year, the students have an entire block to go through the process of how you form a question. These questions are typically interdisciplinary in nature; they require that the person find a faculty member who’s going to be their mentor and with whom they’re going to work one-on-one with for the next two years; they require selecting a set of courses, and they require, and this is very important, finding an experiential learning opportunity. Everybody has to do an experiential learning component off campus for several months, and they have to develop that as part of their question. Ultimately this all comes together in a project we call the keystone project. These are presented to the entire university on the last two days of university. Some of the work produced is really far better than some of the master’s theses I’ve seen at Columbia.

UA: You have announced that you are stepping down as president of Quest. Why now?

Dr. Helfand: In August it will be 10 years. My wife still lives in New York. We get along very well over Skype but it’s nice to see her occasionally. But the main thing is, September 1st, we will have all the students we need, the campus will be full. The construction is completely done. The faculty are 90 percent hired. It just seemed like a natural time to tie it up with a ribbon and hand it off to someone else. I don’t intend to die in Squamish. I’m from Manhattan and I like concrete better than trees. My B.C. colleagues find this totally incomprehensible. But, it’s been by far the most interesting, challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done in my career. If I have been successful, then my presence is no longer required, because I’ve helped to build an organization that will carry this unique educational model forward.

UA: What’s next for you?

Dr. Helfand: Because I’m not independently wealthy, I am coming back to Columbia. I am excited about coming back to New York City but somewhat less excited about moving back to Columbia. I have my first book coming out in the fall, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, and have two more books in my head.

UA: Any last words?

Dr. Helfand: When Quest was founded, I read the documents and they said they had two goals: to create the most effective, engaging undergraduate liberal arts program they could; and to have an impact on Canadian higher education. I thought that’s pretty arrogant: you haven’t even started yet and you think you’re going to change Canadian higher education. But now, we have two or three delegations a month coming from not just Canada but all over the world to visit us. Hearst University in Northern Ontario, a public institution, in September switched completely to our block program after spending three years visiting with us. At the University of Northern British Columbia, the geography department has switched to the block program for the seniors’ cohort. We have the Aga Kahn Development Network developing universities in Central Asia and Tanzania, and they’ve come five times already and they’re building their Tanzanian school basically on our model – to the extent that they want to bring 50 of our students and 10 of our faculty there for the first year when they open in 2019. Next month I’m going to the U.K., where they’re forming a new university with what they’re calling a liberal sciences program and they’re basing it on our model of inquiry-based, student-centred teaching. I don’t think we’ve transformed anything yet, but there’s a lot of interest.

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  1. Sam LoBalbo / May 15, 2015 at 18:40

    Thank You Thank You Thank You David Helfand for your insight and dedication to education. The world is truly…. a better place for it. Long Live Quest.

  2. Bob / May 19, 2015 at 10:13

    Sure Quest is different, but if a block model and merit-based financial need means “changing Canadian higher education”, I think we fundamentally need someone who dreams a bit bigger, and thinks a bit differently – particularly someone NOT from an academia background.

  3. David Toews / May 21, 2015 at 10:19

    A precarious higher education model for a precarious labour market, couched in the rhetoric of ‘risk’ taking. I didn’t hear much in this interview about knowledge for its own sake, for pleasure, for self-development, for discovery, for posterity, for contemplation, and for meaning in one’s life, you know, the true ingredients of a quest. We know that people sometimes use names to compensate for what is truly missing. Is this, in reality, the first anti-quest university?

  4. John Amodio / May 22, 2015 at 19:50

    Probably the most meaningful commentary on Quest, their educational model and its impact, should come from its students. Hopefully, they will share their perspective directly, though, the fact that Quest has ranked # 1 in student satisfaction in Canadian higher education surveys speaks loudly. As parents of a Quest Freshman, we were simultaneously hopeful about a promising fresh educational approach that in theory seemed a better fit for our son, yet also concerned as if turning down one of the highest rated schools in the U.S to attend this experiment would work out. Thankfully our son is quite open and candid about his experience, and it is overwhelmingly positive. He is accustomed to working hard, and Quest has required that. More so, it has definitely expanded his perspective, challenged his beliefs and motivated him to be continue his personal quest for knowledge, meaning and contributing to community. Kudos to David Helfand and to everyone who has contributed to its creation and continued development.

  5. Sarah / March 30, 2016 at 22:32

    This university is way to expensive for the experience that it provides…

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