Category winner: UCSD: A Cancer Cluster in the
Literature Building? (A)

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This case won the Economics, Politics and Business Environment category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2017.
The case

Who – the protagonists

Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). A world-renowned chemist, she became the first female Chancellor of UCSD in 2004.


Elevator and electrical equipment in the Literature Building at the university was being blamed for a possible ‘cancer cluster’ among staff who were demanding action to address the problem.

Cancer cellsWhy?

There had been eight cases of breast cancer in the Literature Building, with two women dying.
At least two previous requests for a study were made in 2002 and 2005 before UCSD’s Environment, Health and Safety Department completed an indoor environment and air quality assessment of the Literature Building in 2007.

No ‘likely evidence’ was found of anything that might increase the incidence of cancer. A further investigation in 2008 concluded that, ‘…there is a possibility of a mild to modest increase in risk of breast cancer associated with a very small area of the first floor building in very close proximity to the electrical and elevator equipment rooms.’


Literature Building

The incidences of breast cancer among faculty and staff working in the Literature Building had been noted since 2000.


The Literature Building, UCSD, is part of the University of California, US.

Key quote

‘If there is a health and safety issue in any building on this campus, I want to know about it, so I can fix the problem and protect our people.’ – Chancellor Fox, 2008 letter to Don Wayne, Chair of the Literature Department.

What next?

Map of campus

The Chair of the University Building Committee, Professor Oumelbanine Zhiri, asked the university to immediately relocate the department temporarily while requested alterations were carried out.
Many faculty would no longer hold meetings or classes in the building and the university temporarily shut down the elevators pending EMF study conclusions.

By February 2009, staff and students were holding an angry protest march, carrying a mock coffin and chanting slogans such as, ‘I am here to work, not get cancer’. How can Chancellor Fox respond?

* This case also won The Case Centre’s Outstanding New Case Writer Competition in 2015.
The author

Laurel C. Austin

authorLaurel explains the importance of understanding how our brains work and the impact this can have in the real world.


I am very honoured to receive this award, and to have won the Outstanding New Case Writer Competition in 2015 for the same case. This award in particular tells me that the case and teaching note offer valuable materials, and perhaps teaching inspiration, to other university educators. It is gratifying to think that students in a variety of settings discuss the case and take away their own ‘lessons learned’. This hopefully leads to improved decision-making in their future professional lives, but also in other contexts.

Highlighting problem thinking

This case illustrates how our brains are geared to perceive evidence that confirms our hypotheses and, more importantly, that we are not very good at perceiving ‘disconfirming’ evidence.

In this case, employees, and even a statistician, note that there have been eight cancers in six years, but pay no attention to earlier years when there was no cancer. This means the eight cases actually took place over many more than six years.Cogs inside brain

This demonstrates that to really test a hypothesis, we need to look for both kinds of evidence – confirming and disconfirming. Otherwise, we are making decisions based on a biased set of evidence. 

Another case where this happens is Group Process in the Challenger Launch Decision. I like to teach both cases in one course. This allows students to see essentially the same kind of problematic thinking in two very different settings.

New cases

My interest is in developing cases that, like this one, allow students to see that when decision-making quality is impacted by cognitive biases and decision heuristics that result from fast intuitive thinking, there can be significant real-world consequences.

I think this is important because most of the relevant theories we teach in this area are derived from experimental studies using problems that are arguably contrived.

Different approaches

I have found that other faculty use this case in different ways. Some focus more on the business politics aspects, some on crisis communication, and some, like me, see the main teaching objectives as related to decision biases and heuristics. I’d be happy to hear from other faculty about how they use the case, perhaps to give me new ways to use it in my own teaching.

Laurel C. Austin wrote and published this case while at Copenhagen Business School. She is now an Adjunct Research Professor at Ivey Business School.
tw @prof_laurel

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UCSD: A Cancer Cluster in the Literature Building? (A Case)
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UCSD: A Cancer Cluster in the Literature Building? (B Case)
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Teaching note

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View all the 2017 winners