As cyber-attacks escalate, Mercyhurst stands at the ready

“Certainly you should monitor your credit history and check your credit card statements to see if there is any unauthorized usage,” said Mercyhurst University cyber security expert Afzal Upal, Ph.D., who called for vigilance in the wake of Marriott’s data breach, which compromised the information of an estimated 500 million guests. (Nov. 30, 2018,

And two weeks later, as the country awoke to an email bomb threat that forced the evacuation of buildings across the U.S. and Canada, including two schools in Erie County, Upal explained just how easy it can be to generate that kind of fear on the internet and go undetected:

“You can put anything as your name, put anything as your phone number, you can be sitting anywhere in the world…”
(Dec. 13, 2018, Erie News Now)

With a cyber security skills gap that promises more of the same, Mercyhurst University stands ready to leverage the global reputation of its Ridge College of Intelligence Studies & Applied Sciences to address the worrisome manpower crisis.  

Only by enlisting the next generation of skilled cyber professionals, as well as training existing employees, will we build stronger defenses and restore confidence among Americans worried about cyber safety, both personally and for our nation, said Mercyhurst’s Upal, chair of the Computing & Information Science Department.

With an undergraduate major in Cyber Security, an online graduate program in Cyber Security and another in Cyber Risk Management, as well as a new four-course, 12-credit graduate certificate in Cyber Security, Mercyhurst is marshalling its resources to put a dent in Cybersecurity Ventures' estimate of 3.5 million unfulfilled cyber security jobs by 2021. In fact, this spring it is offering a new course in Digital Forensics that enables cyber security analysts to interpret the tell-tale signs left behind by computer crime in attempts to identify the culprit, such as in the December email threat.

Under the direction of former FBI Deputy Chief of Counterterrorism Robert Heibel, Mercyhurst pioneered the first intelligence program at a civilian institution in 1992 and was alone in that distinction for years. Its original focus centered on law enforcement and national security, garnering epic enrollments after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the need to equip businesses with effective strategies for competitive market advantage and long-term stability became apparent, Mercyhurst provided a new emphasis for students interested in business intelligence. In every new undertaking, Mercyhurst’s intelligence studies program grew in enrollment and in reputation.

So, it came as little surprise when Mercyhurst took the logical step of broadening its intelligence program to incorporate a robust cyber security curriculum and open the new MCPc Cyber Education Center on campus. In fact, Erie native Tom Ridge, Pennsylvania’s 43rd governor, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and Ridge College namesake, had this to say at the grand opening of the university’s new cyber education center last fall: “this ensures Mercyhurst remains the vanguard of the field.”

The unique aspect of Mercyhurst’s new online graduate program in cyber security is that students don’t have to hold an IT, computer science, or a related technology degree to qualify for admission, said Dr. Christopher Mansour, assistant professor of cyber security.  All you really need, he stressed, is an unbridled curiosity and a passion for problem solving. This affords far more accessibility to companies looking to train existing employees in cyber security.

Upal stressed that U.S. employers must start broadening their search to include people with the right traits, rather than the right skills, in order to start closing the workforce gap.

A real-time digital map in Mercyhurst’s cyber center identifies cyber-attacks as they happen, which is daily. Although Americans are probably only familiar with the high-profile attacks at companies such as Equifax Inc., Anthem Inc. and Marriott, any number of garden-variety cyber threats continue to plague small to mid-sized businesses, not to mention critical infrastructure, for which Upal says America is woefully unprepared.

“We are at a critical time and Mercyhurst is ready to do its part,” he said.