Stephen F. Austin State University Grapples with Disruption following Cyber Attack

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Students of Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) are still grappling with the disruption of their studies as the institution continues to recover from a cyber attack that halted its operations over two weeks ago. The East Texas university has confirmed that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking into the incident which drew the school to a halt, shutting down their internet and disrupting classes. While the university has managed to restore access to the internet and the university’s online teaching portal, the fallout from the attack has left students and faculty in a state of chaos, particularly affecting those enrolled in summer courses.

One of the students affected by the Cyber Attack is Macie Torres, an early childhood education student at SFA. The cyber attack struck just before her midterm exams, severing her access to professors and classmates located more than 150 miles away. Torres described the ordeal as throwing her six-week school term into chaos. “I started to panic and worry about when I would graduate, if this will affect my classes,” she shared. The university disclosed that the attack occurred between June 10-12, following which it severed internet access to prevent further breaches to its system.

The University of Texas System has since lent its support to SFA as it works to recover from the attack. The university is set to join the University of Texas System, following recent approval from the Texas Legislature. University spokesperson, Graham Garner, has confirmed that SFA police are working in conjunction with the FBI on the investigation. He reassured that there was no evidence to suggest that any personal or sensitive financial information was accessed during the breach. However the investigation is still continuing at this time. The Education sector has, in recent years, become a hotspot for ransomware attacks due to the abundance of staff and students’ personal information, financial records, sensitive research and data stored on their systems and much more. According to a 2022 report, there has been a global increase in ransomware attacks on higher education institutions over the past few years. The report indicated that higher education institutions often recover from such attacks at a slower rate than other sectors.

While the university has managed to restore some online services and the university website, many students were still struggling to regain access to the school’s online learning platform and catch up on assignments. Garner refrained from commenting on whether the university was asked to make any payment to unlock its systems. In response to the incident, SFA required all employees to change their passwords and reminded faculty, staff, and students to remain vigilant of phishing attempts. Despite the ongoing issues, the university has managed to continue providing meals and housing for on-campus students and a scheduled freshman orientation was held as planned last week.

The situation has given rise to a sense of community to SFA, with professors using the university’s Facebook page to share updates and reassure students. One professor, Dennis Gravatt, urged students to remain patient, stating, “Patience is the key to success. When communications get back to normal the lecture schedule will be adjusted. I don’t have any more access to SFA than you do.”

Despite the hurdles, students like Macie Torres have been heartened by the support from the community. Torres shared that a local resident, unrelated to the university, offered to reach out to her biology professor on her behalf after she posted her struggle on a local Facebook group. Despite this, Torres, with only 10 days left in her semester, remains concerned about completing her remaining coursework on time.

The incident serves as an important reminder of the vulnerability of businesses and the challenges posed by evolving cyber security threats. Incidents such as this highlight the strain of such disruptions in the education sector on students, particularly those juggling multiple responsibilities. Torres said, “It’s really just annoying because we have a plan,” she said. “There are single mums who are doing summer classes. There are people trying to jump back into the education world for summer classes. For this to happen, that kind of doesn’t motivate them to try more.”.

As Stephen F. Austin State University continues to navigate its recovery from this Cyber Attack, the broader impact on students and the academic community remains to be seen. However, as the investigation progresses, the university remains committed to regaining normalcy and ensuring its students can continue their academic pursuits with minimal disruption. The resilience demonstrated by the students, and the broader university community, is a testament to their commitment to education, even in the face of adversity.

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