VCU awarded 2011 National Quiz Bowl championship following cheating scandal

Originally published March 28, 2013 in The Commonwealth Times

Liz Butterfield
Assistant News Editor

At breakneck speed, Cody Voight reads off a packet of questions while students hug their buzzers close. First a toss-up, then a bonus. Questions switch from English literature, to biology, back to history and then to physics. Teams barely have a chance to think about the quick quiz questions before a response is given by an opposing teammate and they’re on to the next set.

It’s just a practice round, but VCU is getting all the right answers — just like they did in the run-up to the 2011 National Academic Quiz Tournament finals. They fell in the last match to perennial favorite Harvard University, but due to a recent investigation by the NAQT, VCU’s 2011 team has gone from runner-up to national champion.

The NAQT recently uncovered a cheating scandal in which Andrew Watkins, a Harvard alumnus and former Harvard quiz team member, cheated during national tournaments from 2009-2011, according to the NAQT, which has stripped Harvard of four national titles won during those years. The University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and VCU have been retroactively named first-place winners instead.

Watkins abused an NAQT website loophole before the competitions that allowed him to view the first 40 characters of many of the quiz questions. Team President Sean Smiley explained they were alerted to the cheating when they noticed Watkins, who was known as a good “generalist” at quiz questions and a “specialist” at science-related topics, started doing unusually well in other subjects.

During a typical Quiz Bowl tournament, two teams of four players each compete against other colleges for trivia questions that range from everything from history to biology. Participation in VCU’s team is open to all students in good academic standing, and tournaments are open to most members.

Members of the 2011 team, George Berry, Cody Voight, Evan Adams and Tommy Casalaspi, collected the title for VCU last Wednesday, shortly after the news was posted on the NAQT website. Voight, now Quiz Bowl treasurer, is the only member from the 2011 team still at VCU.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Voight, a senior electrical engineering major. “It’s nice to know that our hard work really did pay off, especially as that was the last year for two people … it was nice to go out with a bang.”

NAQT president and chief technical officer Robert Hentzel said the NAQT was shocked and saddened after learning of the cheating incident.

“The evidence was pretty clear, however, and Andy Watkins admitted that the access had occurred, so there was very little question about what had to be done,” Hentzel said.

The NAQT will review its administrative website and server logs in hopes of unearthing any other incidents before they affect another tournament. The organization will institute new preventive policies too but is not yet sure of other changes it will likely make, according to Hentzel.

“I’d say that the community … has historically erred on the side of trust, friendliness and flexibility. That may be shifting back toward the side of security as a result of these issues,” Hentzel wrote in an email.

Smiley said the team and others in the Quiz Bowl community had suspicions that Watkins was cheating in the championship early on. He said the VCU players were not surprised when the truth came out.

Voight said during the two 2011 national tournaments, Watkins’ performance was drastically different.

“He had a significant drop between how well he played between the two nationals, especially considering the fact that the areas where he was good, which was basically just science, is fairly constant between the two tournaments.” Voight said. “So the difference between his performance was very shocking and telling.”

But being unusually good at Quiz Bowl questions that range from everything from pop culture and history to physics and biology is not necessarily an oddity.

VCU’s legacy at Quiz Bowl began with alumnus Matt Weiner, who began the group in 2002 and in 2005 won the first national title for the university by himself.

Since then, the Quiz Bowl team has grown and become a force to be reckoned with in the academic tournament world. VCU has never finished outside the top 25, according to George Berry, club vice president.

The 2013 team has as many as 14 members at a time, ranging from engineering and biology to history and literature majors.

“There’s a community around Quiz Bowl and it’s sort of a pleasure to be in the community,” Voight said. “The game itself is about knowledge, and cheating … completely defeats the purpose of Quiz Bowl.”

VCU’s Quiz Bowl team competes in six to eight tournaments each semester and will compete in both the Intercollegiate Championship Tournament in Chicago and the Academic Competition Federation tournament at Columbia University this April.

“It used to be a real shock to see VCU at tournaments,” Voight said. “But over time that’s changed a lot and it’s generally a nice feeling to be able to compete with team players like (Ivy League schools) and be able to win against them.”

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