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.