Harvard and the Question of Quiz Bowl Cheating

You probably saw this coming: Andrew Watkins, the former president of the Harvard quiz bowl team that was stripped of four championships for allegedly cheating, is denying that he actually cheated. But did he?

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You may have seen this coming: Andrew Watkins, the Harvard quiz bowler accused of cheating by the National Academy of Quiz Tournaments, is denying that he actually cheated. Watkins, the former president of Harvard's quiz bowl team, told The Harvard Crimson that, while he used his NAQT employee account to access an index of official questions that were later used in the championship tournaments that Harvard's team won, he otherwise "had no intention to—and functionally speaking did not—benefit from the content of the questions in any way." So did Watkins actually cheat? Let's go over the evidence — and, perhaps more important, the ethics of this bizarre scandal.

First, the evidence. On one hand, it's beyond dispute that Watkins was at least privy to quiz bowl questions. (In a strange bit of wordplay, Watkins told the Crimson that he only loaded the site on which the questions were listed, but didn't actually read them: "A website containing question content was loaded. At no point did I read the questions therein." Even stranger, Watkins refused to disclose why, exactly, he loaded the website.)

On the other hand, it's unclear if Watkins used those questions to gain an advantage in the actual championship. In the statement he provided to NAQT when it announced its sanctions against him, Watkins emphasized that "there is neither direct nor statistical evidence that I took advantage of my access." The NAQT appears to agree Watkins' performance demonstrated zero statistical anomalies. But of the four students caught accessing the company's servers, Watkins was the most successful quiz bowler. If his performance was statistically sound, his achievements were certainly unprecedented: Watkins delivered Harvard the first Division I quiz bowl championship ever won by an all-undergraduate team.

Even then, Watkins's competitors and teammates considered his performance inconsistent. The Crimson notes that Watkins often killed it at tournaments hosted by the NAQT, only to falter at tournaments hosted by other quiz companies. His performance was so remarkable that a 2011 Crimson article, about one of the tournaments at which Watkins is accused of cheating, devoted several paragraphs to it. In retrospect, they're eerie to read:

The squad was baffled when Watkins—showing ability beyond his science expertise—answered the deciding question, an inquiry concerning the history of Thailand.

“Andy buzzed in, and he hadn’t gotten a history question all tournament,”

Simons said. “It was funny that he took that one.”

“It was not in a category that I’m comfortable with or generally speaking, good at,” Watkins said. “But with only a few seconds [to react], you can’t really induce your teammates to answer the question.”

Which brings us to the ethics of this episode. If Watkins merely had access to quiz bowl materials, does that mean he cheated, ethically speaking? We'll probably never know the answer, since it depends, in part, on reading Watkins's mind, in order to determine whether he sought and obtained an unfair advantage. But in the world of quiz, which tests participants' familiarity with pre-determined categories such as world history and science, the answer seems clearer: he compromised the integrity of the competition. Why? Unlike other non-athletic collegiate competitions — policy debate, for example —  knowing the questions is as good as knowing the answers. That changes the equation of what's considered unethical.

To that end, Watkins's former team seems to agree that he crossed an ethical boundary. "Andy Watkins obviously cheated, and has embarrassed himself and our school's team," Graham Moyer, the president of Harvard's quiz bowl team, told The Atlantic Wire. When asked if Watkins's transgression signaled some kind of deeper pathology — which, at Harvard, is a legitimate concern — Moyer responded:  "What Andy did should not reflect on the team as a whole. He made his own terrible decisions and has paid for them, but his decisions have nothing to do with the decisions and ethics of anyone currently on the Harvard team or any of our recent alumni."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.