Minnesota wins college tournament by not cheating. Unlike you, Harvard

(Updated 3:23 p.m. with comments from championship team)

Congratulations, Minnesota! You’ve got a new college team champion. Two, actually!

It happened today when the National Academic Quiz Tournaments organization stripped Harvard of four tournament victories for cheating, giving the U of M the 2009 title in the undergraduate category, and the 2011 Division I championship.

Harvard team member Andy Watkins accessed the organization’s server and viewed pages where questions to be asked were stored.

Watkins, showing Harvard chutzpah, issued a statement noting that just because he accessed the questions to be asked, doesn’t mean he gained an advantage by using the information in the subsequent tournaments:


I regret my breaches of question security. I am gratified that NAQT acknowledges that there is neither direct nor statistical evidence that I took advantage of my access; though I know everyone will make their own judgments, I did compete in good faith. My memories of my four ICTs in particular, and my time with the Harvard team in general, are my fondest memories of quiz bowl and some of the fondest of my time as an undergraduate. It is unfortunate, if understandable that, despite the aforementioned lack of direct or statistical evidence, NAQT finds it best to vacate Harvard’s wins and championships. I hold my teammates from all three years to be champions today exactly as they were yesterday. I hope that they will consider themselves in the same light, even if my indiscretions mean that the record books cannot.

My immaturity damaged my much-prized relationship with NAQT and cast undue doubt on three remarkable accomplishments by three Harvard teams. 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 apologize to my teammates, to NAQT, and to the community for how my actions sullied three amazing years of competition.

“We came agonizingly close to winning,” U of M team member Andrew Hart told me this afternoon, noting the 2009 team got tripped up on the last question on the plays of John Dryden.

“One of our team members actually broke something after that game,” he says, although he acknowledges now that the ’09 championship as an undergraduate team pales to now winning the 2011 overall title.

“If you can see the questions ahead of time, it’s not just having an advantage, it’s like having the answer key to the test,” Hart had earlier told Inside Higher Ed. “[Harvard A] was already one of the best teams in the country, so I think that gave them the push they needed to get over the top. They were able to win these tournaments based on… cheating.”

Hart, who is a law student heading for a position with the Minnesota Court of Appeals when he graduates, has two more tournaments to go (there are two per year). He says there’s no bad blood between his squad and Harvard. “I know them extremely well,” he says of the team members who didn’t cheat. “I talk to them all the time.”

But, for the record, he and his team aren’t sweating Harvard. “Everyone thinks Harvard is the team to beat because, ‘oh, they’re Harvard,’ but at least in recent memory, Minnesota has had a better string of performances. From 2008 to 2011, we were one of the best three teams. The University of Chicago is the New York Yankees of quiz bowl.”

  • Nice headline — how old are we?

    I certainly disapprove of cheating, but I must point out that it saddens me to see MPR cheapening itself by making childish jabs at Harvard presumably just because it is the university usually thought to be the most elite (however you want to define that) one in this country. This story wouldn’t be news if it didn’t satisfy many Americans’ bizarre desire to see Harvard’s name sullied, and I expect better of MPR than to buy into this blend of anti-intellectualism by using unnecessarily charged terms like ‘Harvard chutzpah’ that smack of such drivel as “The O’Reilly Factor.”

    Andrew Hart and other members of the U of M’s team were some of my best mentors and friends when I was very involved in the MN high school quiz bowl scene. Do they deserve recognition for their recently announced victory? They certainly do, but they ought to be praised in their own right and not merely because this announcement proves, as has other recent news, that Harvard is (unsurprisingly) not flawless. Hilariously enough, this article embodies the “oh, they’re Harvard” sentiment that Andrew discredits in his comments.

    Congrats Andrew, Rob, Gautam, and Mike; you beat many unmentioned teams of high caliber and unblemished repute, and I know how hard you worked to do so.

    Sam Peterson

    Chaska ’09

    Harvard ’13

  • Bob Collins

    As a son of the Bay State and fan of the Red Line, I say you’re running out of time to absorb more of a Hasty Pudding approach to your very fine institution. A little humor and good natured ribbing isn’t going to kill you.

    Just laugh it off and accept it in the spirit it was intended.

    That’s what they’d do at Yale.

    Bob Collins

    Fitchburg High School ’72

    Emerson College ’76

  • Fair Enough

    That’s all well and good, but it would still have been nice to see the words “quiz bowl championship” in your headline instead of “college tournament,” or at least a description of quiz bowl within the article (unless this really is meant to be merely comedic and not to actually recognize Minnesota for a laudable achievement).

    Sam

  • Colin

    I’m of two minds about how bad this really was. What Andy Watkins glosses over in his pseudo-apology is that the server logs that NAQT has prove conclusively enough that Watkins violated his contractual obligation to the company to not use his status as a writer to give him any sort of advantage in play. For him to deflect that in his statement–effectively saying, “I got caught, but it’s not like I did anything wrong”–not only is ridiculous, but plays directly into the Harvard stereotype discussed by the post.

    However… what he seems to be getting at by saying there’s no “direct or statistical evidence that [he] took advantage of his access” is that he’s probably convinced that what he did didn’t help him much at all. As someone who had similar question access at NAQT, I’m also kind of skeptical about how much of an advantage he got from what he was able to see. Andrew Hart’s mentioned analogy (“having the answer key to the test”) is somewhat inaccurate, as the amount of the question he actually could see would be the equivalent to seeing most of the prompt for a multiple choice question. If memory serves me right, he would have been able to read the first 40 characters of a question, as well as see its various category and acceptance codes, but not the actual answers themselves. Basically, it would be knowledge of, on well-written questions (which rarely happen on the first submission), up to one more obscure clue on a given tossup question. In quiz bowl terms it’s rare but not unheard of to have a question gettable within seven words; typically, that happens when the question is of a direct personal or research interest. My guess is that when you combine what knowledge he would get from those clues, the amount of questions where any usable knowledge could be gotten, and the abilities of his opponents to answer those questions in that amount of time would mean that, at best, he would have an advantage on two questions per round, or a thirty point swing. In a close round, that’s significant enough to be a problem.

    To give similar credit to Harvard A, they were an excellent team without cheating and could have probably won some of those titles regardless of whatever question knowledge Watkins got. It’s a shame that he sullied his team, as well as quiz bowl more broadly, like that.

  • Bob Collins

    That headline wouldn’t work, Sam, as it is intended as irony in a way during the NCAA basketball tournament to encourage the connection to the last time the U won such a game in it, it cheated.

    But now that I think of it,everyone involved in the quiz bowl would be too young to remember.

    But, you know, you can be humorous — or attempt it — and informative at the same time. The world is a serious place with opportunities everywhere for anyone seeking a daily dose of outrage.

    Personally, I’m bored with that. It’s one of the few perks of age.

    The piece also lauds the U of M team and your assertion otherwise is incorrect.

    Can you take it Loyola?*

    * I’m presuming you get that reference. If not, Google Alan Ludden. You might be bemused. Or not.

  • One Last Thought

    I regret that the jokes were lost on me, but I do think that the omission of the names of the other three Minnesota players, in light of the inclusion of Watkins’ (two paragraph-long) statement, does lend credence to the claim that this seems more about Harvard losing and less about Minnesota winning. Looks can be deceiving, though, and I certainly don’t expect to get anywhere productive arguing with an author about his own intent.

    Sam

  • Bob Collins

    To his credit, Andrew mentioned the names, but he was talking fast and I didn’t get them and we only had a few minutes before his interview on KFAN and, frankly, I was more interested in things that readers might find more interesting and while it would be nice to have everyone’s name, frankly I’m was more interested in the question that put Harvard over the top and the relationship between U players and Harvard members etc.

    If I had to sacrifice the names, that’s an unfortunate casualty but one I think was the correct choice for the intended audience.

    If I had time for one more angle, it’d have been this one: Who blew the whistle?

    For the record, Rob Carson, Gautam Kandlikar and Mike Cheyne were also on the overall championship team.

  • http://loloflargenumbers.com Kikapp

    I just want to point out that the lack of ‘statistical evidence’ doesn’t mean anything to anyone who knows the first thing about what statistical evidence actually means. Watkins’s claims that a lack of statistical evidence amounts to an exoneration is weaselly. His response is some form of “Yeah, I cheated, but there isn’t any evidence that I did it well enough for it to matter.” If that’s how he feels, he probably has a bright future ahead of him on Wall Street.

    Sam,

    I don’t think Harvard is the most elite university by any stretch. It is very selective. It does rank well. But when you figure out that the rankings are deeply flawed, then the notion that Harvard is he best evaporates. Harvard is an expensive college whose main value lies not in its commitment to education, but in the deep connections of its alumni.

  • Mike Cheyne

    I was on one of the Minnesota teams mentioned in the article.

    A few responses:

    1. I agree with Sam that I do not see this as a “Harvard issue” at all. I am disgusted and angry at Andy Watkins, but not at Harvard or anyone else associated with Harvard.

    2. I think Colin underestimates how much of an advantage this is (to see the first 40 characters) for someone with initiative to cheat. Casual cheaters who only saw the first 40 would only benefit in the way he ascribes (primed to lock down categories they already knew well), but if you did some work in looking up the obscure clues or lead-ins, you could probably predict quite a bit of lead-ins. This may seem difficult, but let’s assume you are specifically trying to research 1-2 categories; if you do the work, you can be quite lockdown in all of those questions.

  • Merriam Webster

    Kikapp,

    Elite: a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence

    (For better or for worse. Oftentimes for worse.)

    Not to be confused with “best,” which in the case of American colleges should probably be applied to Williams or Amherst (assuming quality of pedagogy as the sole criterion).

    Sam

  • http://loloflargenumbers.com Kikapp

    Sam,

    I’m confused. Am I free to define elite how I want, as per the suggestion in your first post? Or should I defer to the definition you cherry-picked (from several available via Webster)? Did you happen to notice when you checked Webster’s website for the definition of elite that one of their definitions fit the word as I had used it?

  • Bob Collins

    Housekeeping note for newcomers. Real names go in the “form box” and real email addresses in the email label. Thanks. Carry on and play nicely.

  • Tyler

    This reinforces all of my preconceived notions about ivy league schools.

  • SP

    Fair enough, kipapp; prestigious would have been a better word to have used in the first place. I don’t think that’s a controversial claim in the slightest, but then again, I don’t have direct statistical evidence to support it.

    Sam

  • MA

    As someone closely associated with the college quizbowl circuit, I have no idea what the last paragraph means, and can only imagine Hart’s comments were taken out of context.

    “Everyone thinks Harvard is the team to beat because, ‘oh, they’re Harvard,” – Nobody who follows the circuit ever thinks like that. Ivy League schools are not good at quizbowl just because they are Ivy League schools, and barring Yale, none of the current Ivy teams are serious contenders for this year’s national tournaments. The strength of teams depend more on where the most talented high-school players go to college (often their flagship state schools), and the existence of a quizbowl culture and a well-run club/program at a given school.

    “The University of Chicago is the New York Yankees of quiz bowl.” – Firstly, how is this even related to an article about MN and Harvard quizbowl. Secondly, UChicago is not some kind of “Evil Empire” that grabs all the talented players by offering them large financial aid packages to attend, though many quizbowlers do qualify for scholarships based on other academic achievements. Lastly, while Chicago has a number of talented players, and great strength in depth (they qualify as many as 5 teams to NAQT/ACF Nationals), they are by no means the only team to beat. UVa, UMD, Yale, Penn and Illinois are all stronger contenders at major quizbowl tournaments.

  • MA

    The above comment should have mentioned UPenn as one of the Ivies (alongside Yale) who are serious contenders at major tournaments.

  • kennedy

    Summarizing the discussion to this point. It is acknowledged that a Harvard competitor broke the rules. The disagreements hinge on whether it matters, and issues with the tone of the post.

    Here’s an idea: If you don’t want to be called out for cheating, follow the rules.

    P.S. I was hooked by the reference to a tournament and the fact that both Minnesota and Harvard were in the NCAA basketball tournament.

  • David

    Can we move on to making fun of Yale?