Competition winner:
UCSD: A Cancer Cluster in the Literature Building?

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This case won the Outstanding New Case Writer competition at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2015.
The case

Who – the protagonist

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.


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.’


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?

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?

The author

Laurel C. AustinLaurel C. Austin

Laurel explains what winning this competition means to her, and discusses the pitfalls of the automatic, intuitive thinking illustrated in her case.

Rewarding and encouraging

I was highly honoured to win the New Case Writer competition. I spent a lot of time developing the case and teaching note, and students seem to find the situation compelling. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts might impact teaching and learning in many classrooms, not only at Copenhagen Business School. And it encourages me to develop and write more cases.

Dealing with risk

I want students to learn how automatic, intuitive thinking biases our risk perceptions in systematic ways and to develop strategies that minimise biased thinking. In this case, we see the emotional costs to employees who are afraid of perceived health risks in the workplace, the financial cost to the university, and the personal toll on the chancellor.

Wider lessons

There are a variety of lessons related to how people perceive information that can be drawn from this case. Our brains are not so good at intuitive statistics. Instead, we perceive patterns in data, even when there is too little data to statistically test for them; this is related to what we call representative thinking. We also over-learn and over-generalise from small samples of data and then over-react to that data (a logical fallacy known as the law of small numbers). Thirdly, we ignore times a focal event does not occur; this is called a ‘focusing bias’. As we see from the case, even experts are prone to these cognitive problems.

Teaching approaches

Although the case is short, it is very rich, and on a very emotive topic.

I usually start class by showing one or both news broadcasts – links are in the teaching note. I ask students to work in small groups and decide what their views would be if they worked in the Literature Building. I also ask them to write a brief management action plan for the university chancellor. Many documents relating to this case are still available online and can be consulted by students. A key goal as a teacher is to get students to take a position and defend that position.

About the author

Laurel C. Austin is an Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School.
tw @prof_laurel

Interested in finding out more?

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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

Ref 215-010-8


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