Harvard Has Sullied the Integrity of Quiz Bowl

J.K. Trotter

Quiz bowls aren't really known for attracting cheaters — the 2006 British hit Starter for 10 excluded — but, as recent history suggests, if there's a way to cheat, a Harvard student will find it. According to a "security update" posted earlier this week by the National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC (which holds and judges quiz bowl tournaments), Harvard's quiz bowl team will be stripped of four quiz bowl championship titles after the company caught four students on Harvard's team illicitly accessing official quiz questions before the tournaments were held. 

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The company discovered the breach while reviewing a batch of server logs, which showed that all four Harvardians — who, because they were so good at the quiz bowl competitions, were hired to draft quiz materials — used their employee login credentials to view official quiz questions in advance of championship bowls:

NAQT has uncovered evidence that four of its writers frequently accessed pages on NAQT's administrative website that contained clearly marked, substantive information about questions on which they were intending to—and subsequently did—compete.

Though the number of people involved is much smaller than the huge "Introduction to Congress" cheating ring from last fall, it appears that these quiz bowl thieves knowingly obtained, on several occasions, confidential information that could be used to win multiple competitive titles. That seems a bit more egregious than copying down a classmate's answer on a final exam — even if there are no real prizes at stake in quiz bowl matches.

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Worse, the Harvard student who committed the most egregious breach — spanning multiple years — was an NATQ employee at the time the intrusion was discovered. That student, Andy Watkins, has been fired and is banned from competing in any quiz bowl ever again. Maybe due to the seriousness of his offense, Watkins provided the company with a long statement defending the breach: 

My immaturity damaged my much-prized relationship with NAQT and cast undue doubt on three remarkable accomplishments by three Harvard teams. It will surprise no one that my mental health as an undergraduate was always on the wrong side of "unstable," but that does not excuse my actions, nor does it ameliorate the damage done.

In the same statement, Watkins claims that the information he obtained never influenced his performance during any quiz bowl tournament. While we don't quite buy that, we do (sort of) understand why he'd contemplate cheating in the first place. A 2009 Boston Globe profile of Harvard's quiz bowl team reported that members placed themselves under intense pressure to perform in an already competitive field:

In a game that can induce migraine headaches in casual observers and make quantum physics seem like child's play, merely being very good is seldom good enough. Luck comes into play, too, as do stamina, competitive momentum, and study skills worthy of a PhD candidate.

"Objectively, we knew Brown [University] was much better," said [a student] of the tournament, admitting to extreme fatigue during her last few matches. Giving Brown full credit, she added, "We weren't necessarily playing to win, though. The object was to qualify for the nationals and see how we do there."