Andrew M. Watkins ’11, the former Harvard Quiz Bowl player accused of illicitly viewing game questions in advance of multiple national championship matches, told The Crimson Sunday that he did not cheat in any academic competition. Speaking in a phone interview, Watkins acknowledged that he had repeatedly opened a web page that offered access to college-level tournament questions, but said that he did not read the questions or use them to help his team win games.
“I had no intention to—and functionally speaking did not—benefit from the content of the questions in any way,” Watkins said. “A website containing question content was loaded. At no point did I read the questions therein.”
He declined to elaborate on his motivations for accessing the page, and would not say why he opened it repeatedly before important games.
On March 20, National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC, revoked the Harvard Quiz Bowl team’s victories in four championship matches played between 2009 and 2011 based on an investigation of Watkins’s actions. According to an announcement posted on NAQT’s website, an audit of the company’s server logs showed that Watkins had repeatedly accessed a web page that displayed the first 40 characters of questions that were later used in the same national tournaments in which he subsequently competed.
At the time, Watkins had partial access to the server used to store tournament materials because he was paid by NAQT to write questions for the company’s high school tournaments. However, a security flaw enabled him to open a page that displayed questions written for the collegiate tournaments in which he played.
NAQT’s announcement stated that while the company “has neither direct nor statistical evidence” that Watkins used his prior access to game questions in order to cheat, “the mere possession of it goes against competitors’ expectations of fair play.”
And NAQT President Robert Hentzel said that Watkins, an NAQT contributor since 2009, should have quickly realized that his access to college-level questions was compromising.
“It was clearly marked, and anyone who plays Quiz Bowl would know, “Oh, I’m going to play on those questions, I need to stop looking immediately,’” Hentzel said.
Despite the absence of definitive evidence that Watkins’s visits to the errant page improved his game performance, a number of Watkin’s former competitors said they grew skeptical of his Quiz Bowl prowess at the tournaments for which he had advance access to questions.
“He just did so astoundingly well against some of the greatest science players of all time, beating them in their specialty categories over and over again,” said Andrew Hart, a law school student who played on the University of Minnesota team that Harvard beat in the 2011 championship game. “I think people were suspicious,” he added.
Matthew Weiner, a Quiz Bowl organizer who considers himself an “unofficial adviser” to the Virginia Commonwealth University team that Harvard competed against during Watkins’s time on the team, said that several VCU players raised concerns about Watkins’s access to game questions after the 2010 tournament.
Hentzel confirmed that NAQT responded to complaints made after that tournament with an internal investigation, but said that the review did not uncover anything suspicious at the time.
“[Watkins] was a very good player, but he wasn’t so good that he was really standing out from everybody else,” Hentzel said.
The following year, Harvard became the first all-undergraduate team in NAQT history to win a Division I title in the Intercollegiate Championship Tournament, a prize typically won by teams that are at least partially composed of more experienced graduate students. A few weeks later, Harvard’s team competed in a tournament organized by another organization, the Academic Competition Federation, but failed to finish in the top five.
This raised eyebrows for Weiner and other members of the NAQT community, who noted that Watkins was dramatically less competitive in non-NAQT tournaments.
“His performance dropped precipitously,” Weiner said.
Theodore J. Gioia ’12, a member of Harvard’s 2011 team, said that a variety of factors contributed to the Crimson’s disappointing showing in the Academic Competition Federation tournament. However, he said that the drop-off in Watkins’s performance was, for him, particularly noticeable. “That really fueled the rumors that were circulating,” he said.
Watkins, who has also been barred from writing and editing questions for NAQT, characterized NAQT’s penalties as understandable.
“There’s no question that it was not a wise decision,” said Watkins, who is now a second-year graduate student studying chemistry at New York University. “With better foresight, hindsight, what have you, I wouldn’t have done it.”
—Staff writer Jared T. Lucky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jared_lucky.