University of Utah to pay millions after the death of international student Zhifan Dong as lawmakers give final approval to the settlement

The school has acknowledged its “shortcomings in its response to this complex situation.” The agreement was approved by state lawmakers.

(Dong family) Pictured is Zhifan Dong, a student at the University of Utah, at Salt Lake City's City Creek Mall. She was killed on Feb. 11, 2022 in a Salt Lake City motel. Her boyfriend has been charged in her slaying.

Editor’s note: In the latest update on this case, on Monday, May 22, 2023, Haoyu Wang was determined to be incompetent to stand trial for the death of Zhifan Dong.

The University of Utah has agreed to pay $5 million to the parents of slain international student Zhifan Dong in a settlement for the school’s failure to recognize the young woman was in danger in the days before she was killed by her boyfriend.

The proposal became public late last month as part of a resolution filed by the state Legislature to approve the amount. Any legal settlement exceeding a million dollars involving a state entity, including a public university, must be voted on by lawmakers.

On Thursday — the penultimate day of the session — it gained final and unanimous approval from the House. It previously passed in the Senate. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has already signaled his favor, as well.

Dong’s parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, issued a statement through their attorneys, which was translated to English.

“While we continue to mourn Zhifan’s death, we are grateful to take this important step toward justice for our daughter,” they said. “It is our hope that Zhifan will be remembered and that her memory will inspire others to help prevent intimate partner violence and save lives on campus and in all our communities. We hope she will inspire other victims to seek help and to leave their abusers.”

U. President Taylor Randall also commented on the agreement, saying it reaffirms the school’s “commitment to the ongoing work of addressing all aspects of student safety.”

“Our campus continues to mourn the death of Zhifan Dong,” Randall said. “... No one should have to endure the loss of a child to violence and our university will remain diligent, continue to improve, and advance the health and well-being of our students.”

The agreement comes after the family’s attorneys have met with the U. over the last few months for mediation in the case.

The school released a copy of the settlement, which recognizes its mistakes in handling Dong’s concerns.

“The University acknowledges shortcomings in its response of its housing and residential education team to the complex situation that resulted in Zhifan Dong’s death and acknowledges the terrible loss that the Dong Family has suffered,” it states.

And the school promises it has made additional corrections since then.

Along with the financial agreement — which the school says will not come out of funds from student tuition — the university also will create a memorial on campus for students to remember Dong.

Last year, Dong’s parents had filed a notice of claim — a legal filing that comes before a lawsuit — stating that the university was negligent in responding to concerns from their daughter and that it led to her death.

Dong, a 19-year-old international student who had traveled to the University of Utah to study, was killed in February 2022 in what police say was a domestic violence homicide at a Salt Lake City motel. Her boyfriend, Haoyu Wang, has been charged with her death and is currently in jail. He has so far been declared incompetent to stand trial.

Both Dong and her roommate spoke to U. housing staff several times before that, alleging that Dong’s boyfriend had hit her after she broke up with him and reporting that she was scared about what he would do next, including possible self-harm. Campus police were not called, though, until almost a month after her first report; she died three days after that.

Documents released by the school show that housing employees failed to recognize clear signs of intimate partner violence and the potential that it could escalate, even after Dong told them she had gotten a protective order against the man, who lived one floor above her in the same dorm building.

Records about her experience and her death were released by the flagship school about five months later, after The Salt Lake Tribune pushed for transparency in the case. The events described in the documents strongly mirror mistakes made by the university in the 2018 murder of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey.

After McCluskey was shot to death on campus by a man she had dated, the university pledged to fix gaps in training and communication, specifically among housing staff and campus police, that had been exposed by the mishandling of her case. But the records about Dong’s experience — and a later audit from the state — show those flaws persisted.

And that’s after the university also agreed to a $13.5 million settlement with McCluskey’s parents.

Employees in the dorms and elsewhere repeatedly mixed up the name of 19-year-old Dong and her former boyfriend, also an international student from China, in their reports. They also repeatedly called the phone number of another student with the same name as the man she was reporting.

The school has since taken disciplinary action against three housing employees and two have resigned. But the university declined to comment Tuesday further on the settlement, including the amount — which is less than half of what the McCluskeys received, despite school officials promising they made changes after that case.

In the settlement, Dong’s parents agree to drop any claims. They were represented by the law firm Parker & McConkie, the same that worked with McCluskey’s parents in their case. Dong was their only child, an artist with dreams of working after graduation in Silicon Valley, where she wanted to buy a big house with a garden and small farm.