Harvard University has been stripped of a string of US quiz championship titles after a cheating scandal was uncovered by organisers.
By Jon Swaine, New York
5:50PM GMT 24 Mar 2013
A competitor from America’s most prestigious university was found to have accessed a website that listed questions that were to be asked in the National Academic Quiz Tournament (NAQT).
For three successive years, Andy Watkins, a member of Harvard’s “A” team, viewed pages that displayed the first 40 characters of forthcoming questions, NAQT officials said.
Mr Watkins, who graduated in 2011, had basic access to the tournament database because he wrote questions for a schools quiz competition as well as competing in the national university-age contest.
Championships awarded to the Ivy League college, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009 and 2010, and two separate titles from 2011, were revoked and handed to the original runners-up.
Organisers said in a statement that while they had “neither direct nor statistical evidence” that Harvard had directly benefited from the security breach, “it goes against competitors’ expectations of fair play.”
The tournament sees teams of four students competing to answer questions chosen from across the “entire spectrum of a college curriculum” as well “current events, sports, and popular culture” in a set time limit. Teams that win their regional championship qualify for the national Intercollegiate Championship Tournament.
During the 2011 contest, Mr Watkins impressed observers by buzzing in to correctly answer a question on the history of Thailand, securing the defeat of the University of Minnesota in the final round.
Mr Watkins, who had gone on to work for the quiz tournament after graduating, admitted accessing the web pages in a statement, yet insisted: “I did compete in good faith”. He has resigned from NAQT.
“I regret my breaches of question security,” he said. “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.
“I hold my team-mates from all three years to be champions today exactly as they were yesterday,” he went on. “I hope that they will consider themselves in the same light, even if my indiscretions mean that the record books cannot.”
Michael Arnold, a member of the University of Chicago team that was retrospectively awarded the 2010 Division I championship due to Mr Watkins’s cheating, said he was glad justice had been done.
“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,” he told Insider Higher Education.
The quiz cheating scandal was uncovered when the performance of a student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suddenly improved dramatically, prompting curious organisers to inspect the server logs from its questions database.
They found that Mr Watkins and students from three other universities had accessed the question pages. One championship title was stripped from each of the other three colleges.
NAQT said in its statement that it had launched a review of security following the discovery of cheating in previous years. Organisers have found “no signs of similar behaviour” in the approach to this year’s tournament, it said.
The saga has caused fresh embarrassment for Harvard soon after what was described as the biggest academic cheating scandal in the university’s history. Some 125 politics students were investigated by university authorities after similarities were noted in their take-home final examination essays.
Last month Michael Smith, the Dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that “more than half” of those investigated were forced to “withdraw from the college for a period of time”.