Review of university system computer security shows need for specialized training, testing

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FARGO, North Dakota — An independent consultant who reviewed the North Dakota University System's computer security protocol told the state Board of Higher Education on Thursday that specialized training of information technology staff and other updates and testing are needed to make the system more secure.

The system experienced several breaches in the last year, including a hacking incident in February that exposed the personal information of more than 290,000 current and past students and employees. An internal investigation found no evidence that any personal information was compromised, but an audit was conducted to review policies that may have contributed to the breach.

Erik Wallace, principal architect of a company that provides cyber solutions, told the board that some of the suggested improvements could potentially have prevented some of the breaches.

"I can't say for sure, but the answer is maybe, probably," Wallace said.

The report provided the university system and all the colleges with details of vulnerable areas and recommended solutions. Some campuses have systems that need more work than others, Wallace said.

"I would say the assessment from my perspective is about middle of the road from what I would have expected from the colleges," Wallace said. "All of the items within this report at some stage should be addressed."

The higher education budget proposed by the governor includes $1.5 million to upgrade the system's computer security.

Other things that were discussed at the meeting in Bismarck:

NEW CHAIR

Terry Hjelmstad, of Minot, earned the education board's vote to take over as chairman for Kirsten Diederich, who decided to step down rather than face a contentious confirmation hearing for a second term.

Lawmakers were unhappy with several violations of open-meetings laws during Diederich's tenure and what some believed was a lack of accountability among college administrators. Diederich has declined to comment.

Hjelmstad, currently the board's vice president, told board members at that it became apparent to Diederich she would not be confirmed and she decided to put students ahead of her own welfare.

"It was her personal decision and one we deeply respect," the retired school teacher and administrator said. He was appointed to the board by Gov. Jack Dalrymple in January 2011.

BROKEN BUILDINGS

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani told the board in his report that there's not a "sustainable model" in place to repair several campus buildings that are old and crumbling. He said the engineering complex is so bad that the program is under an accreditation warning.

"We're facing a real challenge there. I'm not optimistic that the Legislature will be sympathetic to this need, which means our state is literally rolling the dice with its engineering program," Bresciani said. "It's by far the largest engineering program. Can we afford to not have an accredited engineering program at NDSU?"

Bresciani said the number of "critical facilities" is growing faster than the ones that are being fixed.

"Even if NDSU got a building a biennium, we are falling farther and farther behind," he said. "There is some point where there is going to have to be a bold measure ... or our higher education system is going to be in considerable peril."

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