MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) _ Students at West Virginia University who passed on to Caterpillar Co. confidential information gathered during a class exercise acted on their own, after grades were issued, dean said Wednesday.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Professor Terry Wilson, who did consulting work for Caterpillar, had students gather information on rival heavy-equipment businesses as part of a class exercise.

Several current or former WVU graduate students told the Journal they then released the information to two Caterpillar dealers. The students charged they felt pressure to do so, in part because of Wilson's connection to Caterpillar.

''We were worried about getting through the course,'' Mark Wheatley told the Journal. Wheatley no longer attends the university and is not listed in the Morgantown telephone directory.

Whatever the students might have done, was done after their grades were issued, said Cyril M. Logar, dean of WVU's College of Business and Economics. ''What their grade was based on was all legitimate,'' he said.

Wheatley and some other students in Wilson's marketing class were assigned to do work for the two Caterpillar dealerships - H.O. Penn Machinery Co. in Armonk, N.Y., and Yancey Bros. in Atlanta - last spring as part of a project designed to give them practical experience.

At the two dealerships' direction, the graduate students obtained inventory and sales volume reports on those dealers' competitors, according to the newspaper.

During the survey, those in the class identified themselves only as university students, not mentioning their link to the Caterpillar dealers, and promised that information would remain confidential, the Journal reported.

But that promise was broken, students said, and former student Herman Flinder, who has since returned to his home in Norway, likened the work to ''spying.''

Wilson did not return phone calls to his home and office Wednesday. The professor told the Journal the exercise was good for students but added that he will no longer assign similar projects.

Spokesmen for both equipment dealers denied asking the students to do anything unethical.

''It was my understanding that the information would be made available to all the participants,'' said Goodloe Yancy IV, general manager of Yancy Bros. ''There are situational ethics involved. At no time were any of the students told to compromise their personal ethics.

''They chose whatever path they chose,'' he said.

Milton Long, marketing manager for H.O. Penn, said he never asked for or received the names of competitors used in the study.

Logar said that Wilson, who is on sababatical, would be told to boost the emphasis on ethics in the curriculum.