Andrew Hacker '51

An Interview with Andrew Hacker '51 and David Helfand '72


"What is Tenure?.....Tenure is a stainless steel cocoon. It is lifetime guaranteed employment....98% of Americans don't have anything like that."

Higher education in America is now a $420 billion-per-year business and the education of young adults no longer seems to be its primary goal.  Listen to Andrew Hacker ’51 and fellow Amherst alum and Columbia University professor David Helfand ’72 discuss the realities and failures of today’s colleges and universities.

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David Helfand '72

David J. Helfand '72, having returned from a year as the Sackler Distinguished Visiting Astronomer at the University of Cambridge, is now Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University where he served as Department Chair for more than ten years until liberated in 1997.

Unfortunately, he was recaptured, and again serves in that capacity. His work has covered many areas of modern  astrophysics including radio, optical, and X-ray observations of celestial sources ranging from nearby stars to the most distant quasars. He is currently involved in a major project to survey our Galaxy with a sensitivity and angular resolution a hundred times greater than currently available. The goal is to obtain a complete picture of birth and death (for stars) in the Milky Way.

At Columbia, he teaches primarily undergraduate courses for non-science majors, including one of his own design which treats the atom as a tool for revealing the quantitative history of everything from human diet and works of art to the Earth's climate and the Universe; the course was recently released as a 24-lecture set by The Teaching Company. Five years ago, he finally succeeded in implementing a vision he began working on in 1982 that has all Columbia freshman taking a science course as part of Columbia's famed Core Curriculum. He received the 2001 Presidential Teaching Award and the 2002 Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. A decade ago, he appeared weekly on the Discovery Channel's program Science News, bringing the latest astronomical discoveries to the US television audience. More recently, his television appearances have been limited to more serious matters on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and in a National Geographic channel series, "The Known Universe". For the past five years, he has been working to help launch Quest University Canada in Squamish, BC, a highly innovative liberal arts and sciences university for undergraduates;  he became President of Quest in September 2008.

He serves on far too many University, government, and American Astronomical Society committees for his own (or anyone else's) good. He believes he is a better cook than astronomer and, ambiguously, most of his colleagues who have sampled his gastronomical undertakings agree.