A cheating scandal involving a former member of Harvard University’s quiz bowl team has resulted in the revocation of four of its championships.
National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC (NAQT) announced on Wednesday that it had recently reviewed server logs covering the past several years of tournaments; this review found that four team members from different teams, who were involved in the writing of questions for primarily middle and high school competitions, had improperly accessed information that could have included parts of questions used in the college competitions.
“People who are writers for the organization have access to an entire database [to which] people could gain access as writers for high school questions and then see [university] tournaments in which they plan to compete,” explained Marshall Steinbaum of the University of Chicago’s team in an interview.
According to the NAQT, one of these writers, Andrew Watkins, of Harvard’s “A” team (many institutions split their teams for tournaments), had accessed “questions-by-writer” and/or “category” pages directly prior to the NAQT Intercollegiate Championship Tournament in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This gave Watkins, who graduated in 2011, access to the first 40 characters of upcoming tournament questions. Although there are blocks in place to prevent accessing questions even in part, Watkins was able to circumvent them.
“NAQT has neither direct nor statistical evidence that these writers took advantage of their prior access in game situations,” NAQT said in a statement online, “but the mere possession of it goes against competitors' expectations of fair play.”
“If you can see the questions ahead of time, it’s not just having an advantage, it’s like having the answer key to the test,” said Andrew Hart, a member of the University of Minnesota’s team, in an interview. “[Harvard A] was already one of the best teams in the country, so I think that gave them the push they needed to get over the top. They were able to win these tournaments based on… cheating."
While Harvard was not the only team to have a member implicated, it was the only team to have multiple championships revoked; all other players named were only stripped of wins within the timeframe of a single tournament. In early February, Joshua Alman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's team was similarly implicated, resulting in the awarding of the 2012 undergraduate championship to Ohio State University.
The revocation of Harvard's championships resulted in the recognition of the following academic teams as national champions in various categories:
- 2009: University of Minnesota (Undergraduate champion)
- 2010: University of Chicago (Division I champion)
- 2011: University of Minnesota (Division I champion)
- 2011: Virginia Commonwealth University (Undergraduate champion)
Watkins’s membership in NAQT has been suspended and his writing/editing privileges on NAQT’s administrative website have been revoked.
Watkins did not respond to requests for comment, but issued a statement to NAQT. “I regret my breaches of question security. I am gratified that NAQT acknowledges that there is neither direct nor statistical evidence that I took advantage of my access; though I know everyone will make their own judgments, I did compete in good faith,” Watkins’s statement reads in part. “I hold my teammates from all three years to be champions today exactly as they were yesterday. I hope that they will consider themselves in the same light, even if my indiscretions mean that the record books cannot.”
Mike Cheyne of the Minnesota team said via e-mail that he was “happy that justice had been served and the rightful winners were named.”
“I'm glad Chicago has added yet another title to the impressive total and I'm glad our strong performance during the 2010 ICT and 09-10 season has been recognized, even if belatedly,” said Michael Arnold of the Chicago team via e-mail. “It's too bad that the other members of those Harvard teams have been hurt by Andy's actions since they're good citizens within the quiz bowl community.”
The revelations come close on the heels of an academic cheating scandal at the university.
Steinbaum said that, although he was glad the wins had been vacated, the security breach itself continued to raise questions. For instance, Steinbaum said, Watkins was able to use the method he did because NAQT only reviewed instances in which entire questions were viewed, rather than portions of them, as in Watkins’ case. “The thing to ask is why NAQT is so vulnerable to being cheated… That’s the story, I think, beyond Harvard’s conduct in particular,” said Steinbaum.