UB buffeted by terror suspect's ties to school

The Connecticut Post/May 5, 2010

Bridgeport - The revelation that Faisal Shahzad, a suspect in last weekend's failed car-bomb attack in New York's Times Square, received two degrees from the University of Bridgeport has thrust the school into an international media firestorm.

Shahzad received a bachelor of science degree in computer applications and information systems from UB in the fall of 2000, and attended commencement to pick up his diploma the following May. He returned to UB to study for an MBA and received the degree in the summer of 2005.

The attention focusing on UB in the wake of the alleged bomb plot, in light of the school's troubles over the last two decades, was not welcome by university administrators and some students at the South End campus.

When the university was saved from financial ruin by money supplied by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church in 1991, enrollment dwindled to fewer than 1,400 students. Since that controversial relationship was forged, UB has spent the past two decades rebuilding its student body and reputation.

The university has long had a large enrollment of foreign students. In the 1970s, there was an influx of students from Iran. In 2001, during the time Shahzad was a student, 41 percent of the UB student body came from overseas. There is still a strong international population, but a growing enrollment of Americans as well.

Of UB's current enrollment of 5,103 students, 34 percent are international, said Leslie Geary, a UB spokeswoman. Students come from 90 countries, and there are currently 21 students from Pakistan, Shahzad's native land.

Tuesday afternoon, several of the university's international students expressed mixed feelings about the impact of Shahzad's arrest on UB.

Amer Alrahayfeh, 32, of Bridgeport, lived in Jordan until a year ago and expressed concern about what message Shahzad's arrest would send about UB.

"I'm so, so sad," said Alrahayfeh, who was at the UB Masjid, an on-campus mosque. "He gives a bad image for our university and for all Muslims."

Two students from India, neither of whom wanted their names used, were also concerned about what Shahzad's status as a UB graduate means for the school. Both of the young men are from Punjab, which isn't far from Pakistan. They both said they worry about how this incident would affect the public's perception of UB in general and the international student population in particular.

"It affects the school," said one of the men. "It's not good for society. It affects the student life."

Indeed, several city police sources speculated the University of Bridgeport may be a breeding ground for radical behavior because of its large Middle Eastern student population. They are concerned that the city's location -- close to New York City -- coupled with its relative lack of resources to root out terrorism, could make it a prime setting for terrorist cells.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Michael Spitzer, UB's provost and vice president for academic affairs, confirmed that Shahzad had attended the school, but drew a firm line between his alleged terrorist plans and the school's reputation.

"The university abhors acts of violence and terrorism," the statement read. "We work to combat racial and ethnic prejudices and animosity, and believe that education in an international context is the key to understanding the values and beliefs of people from other cultures."

At least one student was optimistic about UB's future following Shahzad's arrest. Walaa Akach, 19 of Stratford, is a Muslim who came to the United States from Syria about 10 years ago. She said one of the reasons she wanted to go to UB is its diverse student population. "The school is great," she said. "I love it."

She was confident that most people wouldn't make snap judgments about UB or its Muslim students. Akach said she believes that prejudice against Muslims had been a problem immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that people have become more enlightened and educated in the intervening years.

"People read more," she said. "People are more aware now."

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