Fix it: Audit tags Banner issues at Nicholls

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The information technology team at Nicholls State University just took on a bit more work for the school year, as it will have to address some weaknesses in its system.

The weaknesses came to light while the Louisiana Legislative Authority conducted its financial audit on the university. The LLA’s report on the audit also showed that NSU’s revenue took about a $7 million jump from 2014 to 2015.

The IT system in question is Nicholls’s Banner system, a portal where students can manage things like classes and financial aid. The audit report stated that NSU’s Banner system processes over $79 million in revenues and expenses each year and has confidential data. Auditors found that some employees retained too much access to NSU’s banner system.

“Twenty university employees, including three IT personnel, had excessive access to make changes that might not be detected timely through review,” the report said.

Auditors also discovered that changes to the system lacked proper documentation, restrictions and supervision. Wes Gooch, Assistant Director over financial audits at the LLA, who oversaw the Nicholls audit, said his team made suggestions to strengthen the IT system change procedures.

“Just any time that a programmer goes in and makes a change to the system, there should be methods and procedures and controls in place so that whatever change is made is documented with specific restrictions on that individual as to what they can and can’t do, and then a degree of supervision and oversight over that,” Gooch said.

Gooch said that he brought in his team of information system auditors to look at the Banner system because it is still quite new, having only been around since 2013. Gooch said that the issues discovered at Nicholls are common to some of the newer systems, as employees who needed access to set the system up can retain that access after it is up and running.

“When the systems are implemented, there are a number of people that are given access to things as they develop. And sometimes they forget to go back and refine some of those settings and limit some of that access once that actual system is up and running and they determine who really does need that access,” Gooch said.

Fortunately, the audit only found weaknesses in the system, and no security breaches by employees who still had excess access. Nicholls president Dr. Bruce Murphy addressed the information auditors’ findings in a statement regarding the overall audit.

“Thanks to the auditor’s report, Nicholls will be able to fix the identified issues before any unauthorized data changes can occur,” Murphy said. “For Nicholls and all organizations, IT security is a difficult, complex business function that requires frequent updates and modifications to ensure data accuracy and security.”

According to Nicholls’s response to the audit, database administrator Stacey Latka will be in charge of strengthening NSU’s Banner system security. She and her team will have to review IT user roles and align access as needed, while also centralizing system changes to include logging, documentation and user review and approvals. According to the report, the completion date is June 30, 2016.

On the financial side, the report found a considerable gain in Nicholls’s overall revenue, even as state and federal dollars at the school continue to decrease. Auditors pegged NSU’s fiscal year 2015 revenue at about $92 million, up from $85 million the year before. And for the first time since 2011, the school’s revenues outpaced its expenses.

The university has faced a steep drop in revenue after 2011, when revenue fell from about $98 million to $80 million in 2012. Since 2012, NSU’s revenue has increased every year, with tuition and fees along with auxiliary and other revenues growing while state and federal money has become scarcer. Since fiscal year 2011, state appropriations have fallen by 38 percent and federal revenues have decreased by 54 percent.

The state appropriations decrease is related to the state’s budget woes and the resulting hit for higher education across the board, while Nicholls’s decreasing student population, according to Gooch, is driving some of the federal drop. The university’s enrollment has fallen from about 7,100 in fiscal year 2011 to 6,300 in 2015, for an 11 percent drop. As fewer students attend Nicholls, federal dollars such as financial assistance grants fall as well, according to Gooch.

Though enrollment has taken a hit, money brought in from tuition has picked up the slack. According to the audit, revenues from tuition and fees have risen by 49 percent since 2011. Gooch said that this jump in revenue resulted from increases in tuition rates in line with Louisiana’s GRAD Act.

“All of that was allowed through the GRAD act with certain percentage increases on an annual basis in order to help them offset the drops that they were seeing in state appropriations,” Gooch said.

Murphy noted the decrease in state dollars in his statement, saying recent cuts have made outside evaluation more necessary.

“With state budget cuts requiring Nicholls to reduce staffing, we rely more heavily on audits of this nature,” Murphy said.

Gooch commended Nicholls on working with his team, and talked about the good relationship they have with the university.

“We feel like they’re very strong people that we routinely deal with there. It’s one of those audits that is not problematic routinely for us. They work hard to try and do things right,” Gooch said. •