Everyone knowledgeable about the criminal case against Zhai Tiantian seems to agree on one point: During a telephone call on April 15 to the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., Mr. Zhai completely lost his cool.

What he intended to say during the call is a matter of dispute. All the same, Mr. Zhai, a former Ph.D. candidate at Stevens and a Chinese citizen, has spent the 11 weeks since then in the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny, N.J., on charges of making “terroristic threats,” and faces possible deportation.

The case has bloomed into a minor international incident, tracked closely by the news media in China, where it has prompted outrage in some quarters. Chinese diplomats in New York have appealed to the university to help Mr. Zhai.

School officials contend that Mr. Zhai, 26, angered over his suspension from the university for disciplinary reasons, called the switchboard at the campus’s main offices and said, “I’m going to burn that building down.”

Mr. Zhai’s advocates say that while he used inflammatory language, he was speaking metaphorically, to describe the effect of a lawsuit he planned to file against the university challenging his suspension.

Jerry Sova, a friend who has stayed in touch with Mr. Zhai by phone and letter and visited him in jail, said the former student had admitted using provocative words but insisted he never had any intention of committing arson.

“He told me that he said, ‘I’m going to burn down Stevens by suing them and going to ABC and CBS,’ ” Mr. Sova said. “He is somewhat impulsive.”

Mr. Sova added, “I think that was a horrible use of language.”

To make matters worse for everyone involved in the case, Stevens officials say, the charge against Mr. Zhai has been misinterpreted, particularly in the Chinese news media, as accusing him of acts of terrorism.

The university’s special counsel, Chris Adams, explained that New Jersey law uses the term “terroristic threats” to describe “statements made with the purpose to cause serious public inconvenience.”

“Unfortunately, it shares the same word as ‘acts of terrorism,’ ” Mr. Adams said “No one is suggesting that this is terrorism.”

If convicted, Mr. Zhai faces a penalty of as much as three to five years in prison, Mr. Adams said.

Mr. Zhai, who is from Xi’an, a city in central China, enrolled at Stevens in 2000, said one of his lawyers, Ming Hai. After receiving an undergraduate degree and two master’s degrees, Mr. Zhai began pursuing a doctorate in engineering.

His disciplinary case at Stevens began in the spring. University officials, citing confidentiality rules, would not reveal the exact nature of the trouble, but Mr. Zhai’s lawyer and friends say it began when a relationship with a woman turned sour.

In early March, the woman, a graduate school instructor at a university in New York City, filed a harassment complaint with the police, Mr. Hai said.

A friend of the woman, a professor at Stevens, also became involved in the romantic dispute, complicating Mr. Zhai’s life at the school and perhaps leading to the university’s action against him, Mr. Hai said.

On March 11, Mr. Zhai received a letter from an assistant vice president at Stevens saying he had been suspended indefinitely. The letter, while offering no details, stated that Mr. Zhai had violated several provisions in the Stevens Student Code of Conduct involving harassment, intimidation and “conduct that threatens or endangers the physical or mental health or safety of any person.”

“The overall conclusion is that your presence on campus is a health and safety risk to members of the Stevens community,” the letter said.

On April 15, Mr. Zhai called the main administration building at Stevens, officials said. A campus police officer answered, and Mr. Zhai told the officer what was on his mind.

That evening, the campus police, accompanied by federal immigration agents, appeared at Mr. Zhai’s door and took him into custody.

Mr. Adams said Stevens, as required by law, had earlier notified immigration officials that it intended to expel Mr. Zhai — a move that would effectively cancel his student visa.

Mr. Zhai’s case was supposed to be presented to a grand jury, but it is unclear whether that process has begun, Mr. Adams said. Mr. Hai said the authorities would allow the criminal process to run its course before starting deportation proceedings.

For weeks Mr. Zhai was unable to post bail because of a New Jersey requirement that he turn over his passport, Mr. Hai said; immigration officials had taken the passport when he was arrested. The state lifted the requirement, and a friend of Mr. Zhai’s posted bail this week. But Mr. Hai said that his client had not been released, and that federal authorities were expected to transfer him to an immigration detention center.

News of the case has been reported across China, and at least one newspaper, the English-language edition of The Global Times, which is backed by the Communist Party, has found geopolitical resonance in the matter.

“The incident lays bare the deep-seated disrespect for Chinese people by the U.S. government, which has long boasted its respect for freedom and human rights,” a May 27 editorial said.

It added, “Had the incident taken place in China, some U.S. media outlets would have used it to cast blame on China’s human rights record.”

Officials from the Chinese Consulate in New York have visited Mr. Zhai in jail three times, Mr. Hai said. And according to Mr. Adams, the consulate has asked the university to “do whatever it can to aid this particular student in his immigration and criminal issues.”

Wang Bangfu, a consul there in the Department of Overseas Chinese Affairs, said: “We have been trying our best to ensure that Mr. Zhai’s legitimate rights in jail and during the judicial procedure are protected. We hope people working on this case can find a proper solution in accordance with the laws as soon as possible.”