Computer crash sends Kansas university back to the 1970s

An official at Friends University said they had to take down Wi-Fi and parts of the school’s online network after “unusual activity” was found on the network.

An official at Friends University said they had to take down Wi-Fi and parts of the school’s online network after “unusual activity” was found on the network.

A computer system crash has hit Friends University hard, taking out the school’s Wi-Fi, e-mail and organizational software at various points over the past week, according to students and faculty.

Numerous campus patrons have reported multiple and recurring problems logging in, accessing and submitting assignments, and communicating with the campus community.

The university issued a list of talking points to its faculty Thursday about what to tell students and others about the “technology disruption affecting some of our operations.”

It didn’t address the cause, but did say “most classes and activities are being conducted as scheduled” and “we are working on a timeline for full system restoration.”

A spokeswoman for the university downplayed the crash but conceded that problems were ongoing Thursday. She said an investigation is underway to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Vice President of Enrollment Management Deb Stockman said “unusual activity” was noticed on the network Nov. 11, forcing the university to take down Wi-Fi and parts of the network.

“We are just continuing to look into it and our IT folks will be restoring systems as soon as they can,” she said, adding that they “engaged third party partners to assist us with systems recovery and conducting an investigation into the cause. And that investigation is ongoing.”

Members of the campus community said they’ve been told the problem was a virus attack of some sort.

“There was definitely a virus,” said biology professor Patrick Mathews. “And I think there was a concern that it might have been one of those viruses where there would be ransom demand later, but there’s been no ransom demand and so it just looks like there was some kind of virus. The question now is how far did it spread before they took action to really lock it down.”

He said “I’ve been able to function all right,” by using his own computer instead of the university’s. “It’s just an inconvenience.”

The computer problems started with various systems and apps going offline, said political science professor Russell Fox.

“Friday morning, I attempted to log in from my home computer and the VPN (virtual private network) client was down and I couldn’t connect,” he said. “I called the help desk and said ‘Was this connected to some of the stuff that I heard about going wrong yesterday?’ And they said ‘Yes.’ And I said ‘What’s down?’ They said, ‘Uh, everything.’”

Later that Friday, a meeting was held on Zoom to talk about the system problems, which the staff couldn’t watch on campus computers because the university’s system and Wi-Fi were down, Fox said.

“They gave no information and they’ve still given no information about who hacked us or how they hacked us,” he said. “I just don’t know anything in that regard. I suppose some people know some of that stuff, but I don’t.”

Recovery has been slow and sporadic.

By Tuesday, “They were able to create a back door so that we could get into Moodle,” an open-source freeware system used to organize classes, keep track of grades, post assignments and receive submitted assignments, Fox said. “Now, just earlier today (Thursday), Wi-Fi was restored.”

Fox said it didn’t affect his teaching because he seldom uses computer graphics or online resources in lectures, preferring to write on the chalkboard.

Without working email, he said, “People were leaving notes on doors.”

Students said the disruptions have been a mix of good and bad.

Professors had to extend homework assignments since students couldn’t access it online for multiple days.

“It definitely helped a lot because I work two jobs, student Kaela Ruggles said. “Last week, particularly, was a very busy week. I didn’t have to sit down and do 24 hours of homework.”

Ruggles, a senior studying computer science, also works in student accounts on campus. She said she and other students haven’t been able to sign up for spring classes because of the disruptions.

The online portal prompted students to come in and sign a promissory note on paying for their classes, but signing it in person is not an option, she said.

Ruggles said she also had problems accessing other items: her grades, classes needed to graduate and an electronic time card for work, which had to be filled out with pen and paper.

“Going old school,” she said.

Logan Mount, a junior studying computer science, said his professors told him that the data in the system is secure.

“They said they got it, whatever it was, pretty early,” he said.

Mount said there was still no internet in the Olive White Garvey Business and Technology Building, where he had a class Thursday morning. And anyone needing to log into computers on campus had to use a special username and password.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.