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David J. Helfand is chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University as well as the co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory. He has also served as part of the university's Physics Department. His stated research interests include radio surveys, the origin and evolution of neutron stars and supernova remnants, and active galactic nuclei. Recently, Helfand has been instrumental in the creation of general education classes oriented around the sciences, developing a course, Frontiers of Science, that has subsequently become part of the Core Curriculum of Columbia College, the university's undergraduate liberal arts and sciences division. He was a Visiting Tutor at Quest University Canadamarker, that country's first private liberal arts college, during the Fall 2007 semester. Helfand holds a B.A. from Amherst Collegemarker and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Helfand notably declined an offer of tenure from Columbia in the early 1980s, due to his belief that the tenure system erodes the motivation of senior scholars to be productive. He advocates a system in which each senior professor's job performance is reviewed every six years by a five-member ad hoc faculty committee, which would then recommend whether the professor should be retained or dismissed. In such a system, each professor would serve on one such ad hoc committee per year, except for the year in which he himself is being reviewed. Although his proposed system is unorthodox, Columbia agreed to implement it in Helfand's case.

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