Inside The $100 Million Initiative To Prevent Cyber Attacks At HBCUs

Key Insights

  • The Student Freedom Initiative is working to upgrade every HBCUs’ IT infrastructure at no cost to the schools
  • Cisco is committing $100 million in labor, expertise, materials and supplies to this project
  • The upgrades come as the government is making certain federal funding contingent on schools having a cyber secure system

For six days in late January, Iranian hackers had been lurking in the digital shadows of Prairie View A&M University undetected. Possibly lured by an influx of millions of dollars in donations, they infiltrated PVAMU’s systems and began stealthily going through financial records and figuring out how to lock up the school’s files. Now, a new initiative is upgrading IT infrastructure at all historically Black colleges and universities for free so that what happened at PVAMU hopefully does not happen again.

“It’s a lot harder I think for HBCUs to respond to threats and to also protect themselves from threats just because there’s quite a bit of resources that are required in order to make that happen,” Tony Moore, Chief Information Officer at PVAMU, told The Plug.

A modern IT infrastructure is all the more urgent now after the Department of Education announced in December 2020 that all schools need to have a secure IT system if they want to continue to receive certain federal funding. Student aid programs like Pell Grants, work-study and some federal loans could all be impacted if schools do not upgrade their systems.

More than 75 percent of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants to pay for college, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. If an HBCU can’t comply with the new rules for IT systems and loses access to a majority of its federal funding, it could lead to the school eventually shutting down as enrollment would likely plummet.

The Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) is spearheading the effort to make IT infrastructure at HBCUs compliant with the new rules as part of its multi-pronged approach to helping HBCU students succeed, which launched this fall. SFI was started by billionaire investor Robert Smith, who in 2019 announced he would pay off all the student loans of Morehouse College’s graduating class, amounting to more than $34 million.

In paying off the loans of the graduates and their parents, Smith realized the oppressive burden the debt was, not just on Morehouse students, but across the HBCU ecosystem. SFI takes a holistic approach to liberating students of this burden by, among other things, creating an alternative income-based financing for HBCU students and improving HBCUs’ capacity to teach, do research and raise money by upgrading their IT infrastructure at no cost to the school.

“We have to make it so that our schools, if they want a global campus, they can get one,” Mark Brown, Executive Director of SFI, told The Plug.

“They need a secure IT infrastructure. If they want to do digital donor match, they have the ability to do so. If they want to compete for research dollars, they have the infrastructure there to do so,” Brown said.

Technology giant Cisco has committed $100 million in labor, expertise, materials and supplies to this project so SFI can upgrade HBCU systems without the schools having to pay. SFI has started by working with the HBCUs in Texas, like Prairie View A&M, to conduct a gap analysis to determine what the school’s current infrastructure is like and what they need in order to meet new federal standards to secure student data that comes from financial aid forms. 

From that gap analysis, SFI orders the materials that it will take to get them to compliance, which could be hardware, licensure, software or processes and procedures. The organization then provides the labor to work with the school to implement the improvements.

Brown said the whole process takes roughly two to three months. SFI will then give every HBCU 12 months’ worth of maintenance for the new systems, also free of charge.

Cyber attacks have become more common. In September, Howard University was hit with a ransomware attack that took their systems offline and caused classes to be canceled for days.

But upgrading IT systems can be just one thing in a long list of upgrades HBCUs do not have the money to do. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office found that on average, public HBCUs reported deferred maintenance backlogs — repairs that were not performed when they should have been — of $67 million while at private HBCUs it was $17 million.

Tony Moore at PVAMU estimates it will cost around $250,000 to $500,000 for the upgrades SFI has identified the school needs, which include software licenses and hardware appliances that provide protection from ransom attacks and threats to the school’s infrastructure. Luckily, the school will not have to pay a cent.

“I think it’s going to make us significantly stronger in our cyber resiliency and help us to protect our infrastructure and network more securely,” Moore said. “It will just help us to build better security practices.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.