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The Harvard Quiz Bowl team was stripped of four national championship titles Wednesday after organizers of the National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LLC, discovered that the team’s former president accessed game questions in advance of tournament matches.
Andrew M. Watkins ’11, who competed for Harvard’s team in its four championship victories between 2009 and 2011, exploited a security loophole to illicitly view game questions online, according to an announcement on NAQT’s website. The company said its server logs indicated that Watkins, who at that time was paid to write questions for NAQT’s high school tournament, repeatedly viewed a page that revealed the first 40 characters of questions slated for use in the same tournaments in which he would soon compete.
Now that the four national titles Harvard won between 2009 and 2011 have been revoked, NAQT will recognize the University of Minnesota, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Chicago as champions for tournaments in those years. For violating the tournament’s rules, NAQT suspended Watkins’s membership and barred him from writing and editing for the company.
In a statement provided to NAQT, Watkins acknowledged “breaches of question security.” He maintained that he competed “in good faith,” but also issued an apology to his former teammates, the NAQT, and the community for his actions.
“My immaturity damaged my much-prized relationship with NAQT and cast undue doubt on three remarkable accomplishments by three Harvard teams,” Watkins said in the statement. “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.”
Watkins was not immediately available for comment.
Although the announcement on NAQT’s website said that organizers had “neither direct nor statistical evidence” that Watkins benefited from his inappropriate access to game questions in tournament play, the company maintained that “the mere possession of it goes against competitors’ expectations of fair play.”
NAQT President Robert Hentzel emphasized that Watkins’s breach was made possible by a security flaw in an NAQT web page and was not the result of a surreptitious hack.
“He didn’t break into anything,” Hentzel said. “The website displayed things that it shouldn’t have, and he saw it.”
After Harvard’s team won championships in two different divisions in 2009 and 2010, rivals began to speculate that Watkins had accessed questions beforehand, Hentzel said. Current Harvard Quiz Bowl Vice President Stephen Liu ’14, who as a freshman played with Watkins on the 2011 championship team, recalled that “unofficial rumors were circulating” among opposing teams after Harvard’s 2011 victory.
Hentzel said that after receiving these complaints, NAQT investigated the security of their question server, but found nothing suspicious.
In 2012, NAQT officials discovered the security flaw on their own and fixed it. An anonymous tipster later informed the company that Joshua Alman, another college player, had used the loophole to help take home a 2012 national championship title for MIT. After conducting an internal investigation, the NAQT revoked MIT’s title and banned Alman from the organization for life.
Only then, when NAQT investigated the server logs for all writers and tournaments, did organizers stumble on suspicious activity, believed to be unconnected, on the accounts of Watkins and two other writers, Hentzel said.
Hentzel said the frequency and timing of Wakins’s visits to the errant page made officials suspect that the activity was not coincidental.
“The number of hits to the page and the fact that they occurred in the time period immediately before the championship in question really made us say that there’s no doubt that he could have had access,” Hentzel said.
Hentzel emphasized that NAQT officials believe Watkins acted alone.
“There is no evidence to suggest that any of his teammates knew anything about this,” he said. NAQT has not leveled any sanctions or penalties on Harvard’s team, and no other Harvard players have been reprimanded.
Liu said that at the time, teammates noted that Watkins, a chemistry concentrator who specialized in science questions, performed unusually well in history and literature topics at national tournaments. After correctly answering a question on the history of Thailand in the 2011 national championship round against the University of Minnesota, Watkins told The Crimson that history was generally not his strong suit.
“It was not in a category that I’m comfortable with or generally speaking, good at,” Watkins said at the time. “But with only a few seconds [to react], you can’t really induce your teammates to answer the question.”
Liu said he thinks that NQAT’s decision to strip Harvard of its championships was fair.
“Those other teams definitely deserve those victories,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate that they didn’t get to spend that year between 2011 and 2012 championships celebrating that victory.”
—Staff writer Jared T. Lucky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jared_lucky.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: March 30, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stephen Liu ’14 is the president of the Harvard Quiz Bowl team. In fact, he is the club's vice president.
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