Putting the Squeeze on Bureaucrats
Serge Lang's Information Campaigns Startle the Establishment
Ask Serge Lang for his opinion of government auditors and you'll receive a vehement response.
"They're out to get you," Lang says. "I've heard it myself, directly."
A renowned number theorist and seemingly tireless worker, Lang has devoted a good part of his academic career to waging wars of information on political issues which affect universities. He operates by assembling vast correspondence networks among educators, through which document's, commentaries and invectives--all with an unmistakably sardonic tone--come into the hands of decision-makers and scholars.
Lang's latest campaign of "action"--the noun he prefers--involves educating his readers on cost accounting requirements for government research grants. He opposes the Office of Management and Budget's guidelines for documenting research, as well as the process by which the government occasionally audits these standards, because of "the noxious, deleterious effect it has on the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the research of universities."
Lang, now a visiting professor of mathematics on leave from Yale draws attention from colleagues for his energy, his scientific skills and his startling modes of communication. "He has an extremely strong and sound reputation that will at times be modified by comments on him as a person," says Roland J. Liebert, associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois and a former NSF official.
Liebert two years ago conducted "a rather through exploration" of Lang's background in preparing a book review and came away fascinated by the mathematician's brilliance and his "reputation as a gadfly and a provocateur." Liebert and others describe Lang as a fiercely determined, sincere and relentless advocate of political issues in the academic world, who forces his adversaries to address complex problems with unbroken logic.
Lang describes his information campaigns as devices to "give visibility to the voice of the grassroots." By collecting facts and adding his own carefully chosen commentaries, he tries to illustrate the consistency of his own viewpoints and expose the fallacies in his opponents. "What I do is provide an outlet for what is already there," Lang explains. "By passing out information I prevent things from being pushed under the rug."
Lang sends mailings roughly once a month to a list of 300 fans, colleagues and targets. In addition he lectures on the politics of academia, constantly works the phones and conducts voluminous mathematical research. "He's in his office all the time," says Perkins Professor of Mathematics John T. Tate, who attended graduate school with Lang.
A list at Math Department headquarters reveals that most professors hold two or three office hours each week, but Lang is available for "all daytime hours except during Math 260b and Math 263."
With research and political action occupying his time interchangably, Lang finds ways of drawing public attention to all of his exploits. "He operates in a way to sort of attract publicity by trying to shock people," Tate says.
Liebert provides a description of Lang proselytizing at an academic conference. "He seemed to collect an entourage of people who were fascinated by the stories and issues he likes to talk about."
"Eating lunch with him is an experience. He does it with a determined haste and then hurries to get back to his office," says Michael I. Rosen, professor of mathematics at Brown. "Sometimes he'll fly off the handle, but it doesn't mean anything. The first time I talked to him, I listened to about a 10-minute harangue before I explained I was on his side."
Lang has written 27 mathematics texts, many of which pushed out the frontiers of the discipline. "They're extremely valuable contributions," says Tate, and Jonathan P.E. Hodgson, professor of mathematics at Adelphi University, adds that "it is unusual for a mathematician to have written so many high-level books in so many fields."
Lang has written at least as much during his information campaigns. His "cc list" of correspondents, which ranges from OMB Director David Stockman and columnist Jack Anderson to President Bok, transmits Lang's views on issues to every newspaper, government official, book reviewer and professor whose involvement he gets wind of.
Lang recieves responses and feelers from an exhaustive array of list members, and he preserves all the correspondence on a given issue in "files" of information. Once as issue is resolved, Lang assembles and publishes the entire file as a source of primary history.
He perfected this technique in the later 1970s when leading a drive against an academic survey conducted by two sociology professors, Seymour M. Lipset and Everett C. Ladd. The study, to rank the nation's leading schools in a variety of disciplines, asked some 9000 professors to complete a questionnaire which Lang condemned as biased and overly subjective. He wrote to the authors, mobilized opposition among colleagues, protested to national education bodies about the study and found himself refereeing mail campaigns on both sides of the issue.
He compiled these letters press clippings and reports into a 712-page book, The File, published in 1982 by Springer-Verlag. In the book's forward Lang urges the reader to use The File's sources to develop new ways of thinking about social issues. The academic quarrels, personal affronts, progress of the Ladd-Lipset survey and illustrations of biased press coverage make The File an exciting, perhaps unique method of examining an issue. Ladd, the campaign's target, even sent along a congratulatory telegram praising the book as "a major literary achievement."
Lang has also compiled files for private circulation on such issues as the imprisonment of a dissident Russian mathematician, grade inflation at Yale and Circular A-21 (still in progress), the OMB's set of guidelines for documenting research costs. "Every time you talk about Serge Lang you end up as part of a file," says Lionel S. Lewis, professor of sociology at the State University of New York, who wrote a flattering review of The File. "The editor [of that book] said apparently Lang must own shares of Xerox."
Lang says he conducts mailings and creates files in part because of the shortcomings of the press, which he characterizes as biased and sensationalist. The New York Times is a favorite target: "They pretend to be the to and set the journalistic standards," Lang says. Several years ago Lang's refusal to comply with Circular A-21's effort reporting requirements forced Yale to turn down a government grant on Lang's behalf. The Times's coverage of the incident so enraged Lang that he sent the author--and those on his cc list--a seven-page critique, labeling it superficial and irresponsible.
He believes the press undercuts the public's understanding of issues because reporters do not learn enough about their subjects and because all writing contains an inherent bias. He cites Time magazine's coverage of Harvard's audit settlement with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last November--a footnote to a piece on sexual harassment at Harvard--as an example. The one sentence note provoked a page-long mailing to the cc list, which added the magazine as an involuntary subscriber. "Time is acting as a patsy for HHS," Lang says. "They use sex and Harvard to catch the public's attention."
Lang began the crusade against A-21 back in 1966, when the new regulation required researchers to document carefully how they spend grant money. Many professors find these requirements irrational, particulary "effort reporting," where a professor must determine what percentage of his time he spends on certain tasks. In some fields where teaching, research and writing mesh inseparably, answering an effort report becomes a ludicrous job, says Math Department Chairman David Mumford.
"These idiots attempt to make us break down out time," Mumford explains. "In mathematics where everything is in your head when you start thinking about such a problem and stop thinking about it is very unclear."
While the effort reporting and other A-21 requirements seem preposterous to Lang, he objects to them chiefly because they occupy so much time and subject researchers to unreliable audits in the future. Repeated studies of research show that only a miniscule portion of federal grants are improperly spent, Lang says, estimating that the monitoring process consumes nearly half of these funds. "Out of each research dollar, 50 percent goes to guarantee that .025 percent is not imporperly used," Lang says.
Lang's growing A-21 file contains varied examples of superfluous effort reporting and attacks on the auditing process used to verify these reports. The OMB is the ultimate target of this campaign--in spite of numerous endorsements and task force reports supporting Lang's position, the executive branch agency has remained wedded to A-21's accountability process for almost 20 years.
Lang agrees that researchers should be accountable for their grants but objects strongly to the format in A-21. At Yale he spearheaded a drive to create a new solution to the problem, now in a two-year experimental stage. Yale negotiates a fixed rate for indirect cost reimbursement (the purpose of effort reporting) and requires professors to sign forms saying they have spent their research grants honestly.
But Lang remains doubtful about chances for long-term acceptance for the "Yale solution" because, he says, the government can recover more money from the universities through the effort reporting and auditing process. Although he has never met a government auditor face to face, Lang remains unimpressed by the written answers to his mailings to HHS. "When they respond, they respond either by false statements or by fudging," he says. "The HHS auditors constitute a threat to science, to the independence of universities."
Lang's week on the A-21 issue has drawn colleagues and government officials into the battle. Thomas O'Brien, Harvard's financial vice president, now lobbies actively on the issue even though the University's involvement ended lost November. "He called me regularly when he found I was first involved," says O'Brien, who now sits on the board of the Council on Governmental Relations, on academic advocacy group.
Liebert, who spent three years as the NSF's program director for sociology, says that Lang's cc list mailings had impact in that agency. "I think standards were raised," he says, commenting on Lang's campaign against the Ladd-Lipset survey of colleges. "There ought to be more of us involved."
But Liebert cautions that Lang's intense, diatribic style may invite more amusement than serious acceptance. "Lang got his share of jokes and laughter and wringing of hands within the federation, that's for sure," he says. "Suppose there were 150 Langs doing this sort of thing...How many of them would you trust, for how long?"
Liebert adds that Lang's "mainly a door opener. He's mainly a provocateur. There are people who would be downright slanderous if public correspondence were the vehicle that all of us were to use for assessing other people's work."
Lang makes almost no enemies in the classroom, where colleagues say his vigorous, interactive teaching style creates an electricity for learning. Many letters in The File begin with a quick paragraph thanking Lang for old classroom experiences.
Two years ago Lang's first-year calculus students spent a semester compiling a file of their own, collecting outrageous quotes from the professor and distributing them on the last day of the course. The file, entitled "Quoted Out of Context," has Lang telling students:
O"Brain control, that's what you need to learn."
O"Get your high on factoring to your heart's content."
O"Thank God I've got The New York Times to take my mind off of you!"
Lang says that "whenever I've had to make the choice, I've reverted to mathematics." But chances are he will not stop the A-21 fight anytime soon. "I didn't go out looking for this trouble," he says. "They came looking for me, screwing up my environment."