Aug 05, 2020

University beefs up grade security in response to computer system hack attack by students

Most students appeal to the student Academic Petitions Committee to contest a grade, yet in 2005, some Fresno State students took a different approach — they hacked into the system.

After those students hacked into Fresno State’s system and made unauthorized grade changes, the university improved its security measures and increased the checks and balances in place to prevent that scenario from happening again.

Richard Boes, director of information technology services, said the new system will “make it much more difficult for anyone to compromise our security.”

In spring 2005, a small number of then-Fresno State students made unauthorized grade changes to their own grades and those of a few other students. About 800 hours of investigative and audit efforts occurred between March and September 2005, resulting in two former students being indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with hacking into the university’s computer system, according to Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs Jeronima Echeverria.

The two former students, are John Escalera, 29, of Fresno and Gustavo Razo, Jr., 28, of Pasadena. According to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Escalera worked for the university, changing his grades and the grades of his friend, Razo, who paid Escalera.

Boes said it was the criminal investigation process that took a couple of years to complete, and not the discovery of the unauthorized grade changes.

The changes were discovered through the system’s “normal checks and balances” that were already in place at the time. Boes said “appropriate action was taken” when the changes were found, and the university replaced the new marks with the students’ original grades.

The new system wasn’t completely changed, but improved upon, Boes said. More checks and balances are in place to speed up the notification process of any security violations.

“If a problem were to occur, it would be recognized more quickly,” Boes said of the improved system.

With the upgraded system, faculty is notified of any grade change.

Although Boes wasn’t sure how Fresno State’s system compares with that of other schools in the CSU system, he said the chief information officer from another CSU contacted Boes to inquire about what could be learned from the 2005 incident.

“I think our system’s pretty good, and it was pretty good at the time,” Boes said.

While system security has improved, the right to petition a grade remains the same.

Students are able to consult with their instructors if they believe a grade was unfairly issued, and the Student Academic Petitions Committee is in place to examine proof that they were given an unwarranted grade.

But students must bring evidence to the table.

“Students need to have cause,” said Jean Ritter, a psychology professor and chair of the Student Academic Petitions Committee. “The burden of proof is on the student.”

In order for students to file a petition, it must be based on the final grade. A student may not file to petition a midterm grade, for example.

The student must prove that the grade was awarded in an unfair manner, Ritter said. An instructor who is not complying with the university’s grading policy or a professor who has used a grading method that’s inconsistent with the syllabus would be an example of unfair grading practices.

“The syllabus is really a contract,” said Ritter, who’s headed the committee since 2001. “Grading standards should not change dramatically.”

But students who want to petition a final grade have a limited time period to contest the grade. A student has 15 days from the day the final grade was given to consult with the instructor.

Ritter said it’s “very important for students and faculty to be aware of the procedures” and for them to know their grading rights and responsibilities.

However, Ritter said students should remember they need to have good reason for filing for a grade change, and they shouldn’t act on emotions alone.

“Students should not petition if they’re just unhappy,” Ritter said.

CORRECTION (11/13/07)
To clarify the Nov. 9 front page article, the now five students indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with hacking into the university’s computer system have been charged, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office announcement.

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