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April 9, 2013

The choice to cheat

While Harvard’s quiz bowl team has been consumed by the recent revelation of several cheating violations, the UChicago team had its own brush with scandal last year.

Last month, the UChicago quiz bowl team retroactively received a Division I tournament championship title after a former Harvard team member was found to have exploited a security glitch in the National Academic Quiz Tournament’s (NAQT) website. Before this, though, a member of the UChicago team was found to have cheated during the 2012 Intercollegiate Championship Tournament (ICT). Then–third-year Shantanu Jha, at the time working for NAQT as a collegiate tournament question writer, was found to have leaked knowledge to his teammates regarding ICT questions that he had accessed from the NAQT website.

Jha, as question writer for collegiate NAQT tournaments, was not allowed to participate in the tournament. But he practiced with the team for the Academic Competition Federation (ACF) national tournament that took place the following weekend. Although his teammates did not think that he would divulge NAQT information, once at the tournament they discovered that Jha had been hinting at questions in the weeks leading up to ICT.

“There were things that he had said to us, like...some very obscure cello concerto, [Henri] Dutilleux, that no one had ever heard of, and he had said, ‘Oh, my favorite cello concerto is this Dutilleux thing’...and it turns out that [it was in] one of the packets that was not played in the tournament but could have been,” Matthew Menard, a quiz bowl team member and Master’s student in the physical sciences, said.

After making the connection, the UChicago team immediately reported their concerns to Seth Teitler (Ph.D. ’10), a former team member who was working for NAQT at the tournament. Teitler took the information to Robert Hentzel, president of NAQT and the director of  the tournament.

“It was immediately checked and verified that [Jha] had been accessing the set [of questions] quite a bit in the week leading up to the tournament. [He] was supposed to have that level of access, but it was odd that he wasn’t taking a super active role in writing or editing,” Teitler said.

Since none of the tournament’s outcomes were influenced by this knowledge and none of the members of the UChicago team who competed were complicit in the cheating,  it was decided that UChicago would not have to forfeit their fifth place tournament standing.

According to a statement released by NAQT in April 2012, the company “has terminated that editor’s [Jha’s] access to its systems and declared him persona non grata at future tournaments (at all levels, in all capacities).”

The UChicago team took similar action, barring Jha from playing in the ACF nationals quiz bowl tournament. Fourth-year Tracy Lee, president of the club, decided not to allow Jha to participate in any more quiz bowl events with the team.

“It’s sort of sad because he’s a very, very good quiz bowl player and had put a lot of time into being very good at quiz bowl...It’s sort of sad on a personal level, too, that he won’t talk to any of us anymore,” said Menard.

Jha, who dropped out of the College after that year, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hentzel, who considers Jha’s cheating to be equivalent to an editor selling questions, made a distinction between the UChicago incident and those committed by four other writers, because the latter involved writers who played in the tournament after accessing knowledge about the questions.

After examining its server logs in response to suspicion of his performance in the 2012 ICT, NAQT discovered that MIT player Joshua Alman, an NAQT high school tournament question writer, had accessed a non-public administrative Web page which listed the topic of each question. Clicking on the topic would have allowed Alman to view the entire question, but Hentzel said they could not prove he did so. Alman also accessed the “question by writer” page, which showed the first 40 characters of each question prior to the ICT in which he played. This discovery, in February, prompted an investigation of all of the writers’ activity on the Web site, according to Hentzel.

The investigation found that three other NAQT writers  “frequently accessed” pages on NAQT’s administrative website that contained information about questions for tournaments in which they competed, according to a statement released by NAQT in March.

One of the three writers was former Harvard team member Andrew Watkins, whose four championship titles for the Harvard A-team in the 2009, 2010, and 2011 tournaments won two Division I Overall Championship and two Undergraduate Championship titles. The titles were redacted and awarded retroactively to the runners-up. The UChicago A-team received the overall Division I championship title for 2010.

According to Hentzel, rumors and accusations by the quiz bowl community that Watkins accessed questions before the event spurred an initial investigation of his Web site access shortly after the 2010 tournament. The investigation yielded no convincing results.

“[We checked] server logs, firewall logs, whether he had been impersonating another user,” Hentzel said. “We did not find any evidence to suggest there was wrongdoing, because we did not look for exactly the right thing.”

In response to the cheating, NAQT has further tightened its Web site security. According to Hentzel, the company now reviews its server logs each week, questions writers who do not write regularly, and changes passwords more frequently. NAQT officials also updated their policy for electronic submissions of questions to reduce the risk of them being accessed by non-editors.

Teitler suggests that the centralized infrastructure of NAQT’s question writing and editing makes it more susceptible to exploitation, comparing it to the decentralized ACF, another organization that holds collegiate quiz bowl tournaments.

Hentzel argued there are costs and benefits to a centralized system.

“Our Web site is hard to hack. [But] if you do successfully hack into our website, you get everything,” he said.

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