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Quiz bowl cheating: Say it ain’t so, Harvard and MIT

In the 1950s, the whole nation was shocked by revelations that TV game show contestants were secretly given the correct answers. Today, in the age of steroid scandals and voter fraud, it’s hard to shock the nation about any kind of cheating. But it’s still disappointing to learn that Harvard and MIT have been stripped of championship titles in national quiz tournaments after audits revealed that a student from each team accessed questions in advance.

They were able to get at the questions because they also wrote questions for matches involving other universities. Because of a security flaw, they were also able to see the first few words of questions being prepared for many competitions, including their own.

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Both students insist they didn’t use any information gleaned from the college quiz bowl website to their advantage. However, their individual performances dramatically improved afterwards. After investigating the breaches, the National Academic Quiz Tournaments LLC stripped Harvard of championships in 2009 and 2010, and in two categories in 2011; MIT was previously stripped of wins in 2012.

These two institutions represent the gold standard for academic achievement. Yet in this instance, the two students who inappropriately accessed the quiz bowl website were too clever for their own good and for the good of the institutions they represent.

Perhaps they were driven by arrogance or a misplaced kind of competitive drive. Then again, maybe it was pressure to live up to expectations about how Harvard or MIT students should perform in such a contest. Their motivation doesn’t matter. The appearance of cheating does. While it may no longer shock the world, it still has the power to embarrass, and that’s exactly what it did.

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