Harvard quiz bowl cheating scandal

If you have been asleep for the past few days, you missed quiz bowl getting its biggest publicity boost ever.

A former player for Harvard was discovered to have accessed questions in the time leading up to national championship tournaments which he and his team happened to go on and win.  While cheating on his part had been suspected for a couple of years, it took a crack computer whiz reviewing the sponsoring company’s computer system history and some security upgrades to catch this guy (and three others).

I never actually met the guy, though I was probably in a room with him a few times.  He may have been pointed out to me.  He was greatly disliked in the quizbowl community.  Quizbowl attracts a slightly larger than normal (to the general population) group of people who are “on the spectrum” as we would say professionally, so the amount of over-the-top rage and wild speculation is rampant.  There have been those who have taken it on themselves to question the entire environment at Harvard because this is the second cheating scandal to hit Harvard in the past two years (and as anyone knows, cheating does not occur at the university level …. because if it did, it would make the news … which is why you know places like Virginia Commonwealth are clean).  Make sure your sarcasm detector was on for that last sentence.

However, there is a legitimate question that comes up, and that is security.  Quiz bowl tournaments occur all over the country practically every weekend from September through June.  The host school is generally responsible for the security of the questions, even though a vast majority of the host schools are fielding teams in that competition.  There is an unwritten honor system that exists among competitors since a very dedicated individual could probably get those questions if they really, really wanted to.

That said, the security of questions at the college and national level is practically airtight compared to the high school level (at least in Illinois).  In our state, the state tournament questions are sent to the host school a week before the tournament.  At many schools, the head coach is the only one who knows anything about the competition, and thus handles the questions, turning them over to the moderators.  It is far from a good system.  When I coached, I was always uncomfortable handling them, and did my best to make sure that I saw or heard nothing in advance.  Despite that, I still had a coach accuse me of cheating once (it was a situation where the coach was ignorant of the rules, and thought I was giving advice that could only come from a knowledge of the questions vs. knowledge of the rules).  It still irks me that there is someone out there who thinks I would stoop so low to cheat.

That said, I know there are coaches out there I wouldn’t trust with anything.  Some of them win quite a bit.  There’s no evidence, but I still wonder.

How do you clean up a competition that relies so heavily on the honor system?


For that matter, I think the company involved (NAQT) should be commended for ferreting out the problem and going public with the issue.  I hope in the future they will be more careful with who they hire, but I have had nothing but great relationships with the representatives of the company (including its president).


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