The Case of the Disappearing Cancer Cluster

    Illustration by Philip Rhie/Guardian
    Illustration by Philip Rhie/Guardian

    American universities hoping to maintain some scrap of political climate apparently face one particularly fat movement-squasher working against them: summer vacation.

    Who’s supposed to muster the cobwebby picket signs back out of the pickup once three months of hot California fun have erased all memory of fog-shrouded May fervor?

    That, paired with the fact that every year, a chunk of the student body moves on to the real world. It seems things like the course content of Marshall prerequisite writing, the university’s speech policy or a few hundred more dollars in student fees start to look pretty obsolete compared to that stack of unpaid student loan bills.

    In the end, even the most cross-eyed of Spring Quarter’s fifth-year bullhorners aren’t about to slink back on campus and cause a stink when university policy doesn’t even apply to them anymore.

    It’s the same reason A.S. referendums are shady. And it’s why university officials always know deep down they just have to twiddle their thumbs a while to lose a trail of faithful activists or rotate out a troublesome student representative on one of their committees.

    Which brings us to the latest hot topic gone cold turkey. What ever happened to the cancer cluster in the Literature Building?

    We haven’t heard a peep from the fervent “Cancer [does not equal] Higher Education” crowd yet this year, which — just a few months back — was toting an empty coffin down Library Walk and accusing the university of murdering its faculty by not giving them a new building.

    By Fall Quarter 2009, however, the debate was cut so short we even forgot to write about it.

    The new eerie silence surrounding the Literature Building could have something to do with a recent June report stating that abnormal cancer rates are to be expected here and there on a campus with so many buildings and staff members, in an age where cancer is on the rise in general.

    (And, considering how little we know about all the cell-phone carcinogens flying around or the anti-flammable poisons pumped into everything we touch, it does indeed seem possible that eight people from the same department might coincidentally get breast cancer within a decade or so).

    Chancellor Marye Anne Fox is happily on board with this theory, and after moving some furniture around to block electromagnetic-field levels — even though EMFs were recently ruled out by another report as a possible cause of the cancer — she seems to think the crisis is averted.

    Uh, that report would have been a whole lot more useful before the exhaustive EMF surveys, which immediately revealed levels far too low to do any real evil. Or how about the months of absolute confusion that followed? How did the probability of there not being a carcinogen-caused cluster go from one in 3,333 (on the activists’ Facebook page, last updated in July) to zilch in a matter of months? And where are all the naysayers now?

    But the university needed to look like it was doing something, and the protestors needed something to yell about. In fact, a group of passionate yet misguided A.S. candidates even based their entire Spring Quarter campaign on drawing attention to the cluster. In the midst of all that hubbub, though, it seems nobody even thought to test toxins in the air, which — along with EMF feng shui — is the university’s latest bright idea to keep busy.

    On both sides, total lack of communication between officials, a commitment problem on the side of activists and need for further information-gathering on both sides amounted to the grandest flop we’ve seen around here for years — and that’s saying something.

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