I spent 20 years at prestigious universities, first Yale and then the LSE. Now I’m at a non-prestigious one — National Chiao Tung University. NCTU is one of the top universities in Taiwan, and very famous within China, but internationally it’s largely unknown. It sounds like “Ching Chong University,” doesn’t it? Who would ever like to teach there?!
The prestige of a university lends your words a particular power. What you say has authority because you work at an authoritative place. People pay attention. “Dr Ringmar of the LSE, he must be a really smart guy!” “Dr Ringmar of Ching Chong University — he probably couldn’t get any other job!”
Prestige is a trap. Most people at the LSE go around telling themselves that they are very, very smart. Whatever their other disagreements, everyone agrees on this fact. Indeed, no one is smarter than them, no one anywhere. Meanwhile they forget that they haven’t written anything worthwhile in years. No one has any time to write. Telling themselves how important they are takes up all of their time.
Believing in your own importance is the beginning of the end for an academic. If you want to make a contribution, you have to question everything, especially your own ability to make a contribution. All great academics go from one crisis of self-confidence to another. Only the fools never doubt themselves. (Unfortunately self-doubt alone is not sufficient proof of brilliance …)
I decided to try to make it on my own. Just me alone — and my family of course — but without the crutch that the prestige of an internationally famous university provides. It’s more challenging that way. Trust me, I am the same person I always was and I say the same kinds of things. If anything I’m more productive here since I interact with more interesting people and I live in a more exciting environment. Here I can’t take my importance for granted and no one else does. I must work harder than I’ve done in years.