Facing another student’s death should help University of Utah prevent another tragedy, Editorial Board writes

Death of Zhifan Dong shows how much danger can result from the ignoring of toxic relationships.

(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.

History repeats itself, Karl Marx noted, “The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

That may be true for historians and philosophers. For most people, something happening again can be just as much, or more, of a tragedy the second time.

University of Utah President Taylor Randall last week issued a powerful statement, backed up with detailed documentation. He accepted institutional responsibility for the many failures to act and gaps in communication that led up to the Feb. 11 death of 19-year-old U. student Zhifan Dong. She was allegedly killed by her boyfriend, another university student from China.

In many painful ways, the death of Dong echoes the 2018 murder of Lauren McCluskey, another U. student who was shot (on campus) by a man she had been dating after reporting both to university officials and the Salt Lake City Police Departments that she had reason to fear him. In each case, housing and law enforcement officials were made aware of the dangerous situation, but breakdowns in communication and failure to take the threat seriously resulted in McCluskey’s death.

The university’s response to the McCluskey tragedy was, for a time, totally unsatisfactory. Then-President Ruth Watkins insisted, after an initial review, that there was not anything the university staff could have done differently that would have prevented the murder. State and federal lawsuits brought by McCluskey’s parents and further investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune and the state led Watkins to admit otherwise, as part of a $13.5 million settlement with the family and a foundation it established to improve campus safety everywhere.

Watkins left her post not long after.

Randall, to his credit, did not wait for a lawsuit or a state audit to admit the university’s failures. (Though the university did for months resist requests for information The Salt Lake Tribune made under the state’s open records act before releasing detailed documentation to the general public.)

“The university acknowledges shortcomings in its response to this complex situation,” the school said, “including insufficient and unprofessional communications, a gap in the training of housing workers, and a delay in notifying university police of indications of domestic violence.”

The university admitted responsibility in the McCluskey tragedy. It redesigned the chain of command for its public safety operation. It laid down policies and training requirements for university staff, showing an awareness of how crucial information can get lost in the organizational box charts of a large institution. And, after all that, clear warning signs of potential violence were still overlooked or shunted into someone else’s inbox.

The need to do better has to be emphasized, from the top of the organization to the bottom, with no room for error or false confidence that such a horrible thing couldn’t possibly happen again so soon. Not in an institution as important and as beloved as the state’s flagship university.

And there is no reason to suspect that such failures are unique to the University of Utah. As The Tribune has exhaustively documented, cases of sexual violence at institutions such as Brigham Young University and Utah State University have been ignored or mismanaged at a level that can only lead all students to fear for their safety.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many of the people who are supposed to help are students themselves, resident assistants or other staff, who, however caring and concerned, are inexperienced and may turn over every semester. There are also often cultural and language barriers to be addressed. That means that even the best policies and procedures can’t just be established in a manual. They have to be instilled, over and over.

The insidiousness of toxic relationships including intimate-partner violence can be a challenge. It can be easier to waive off, as mere youthful emotions, incidents that, after the fact, should clearly have been seen as reasons to call all hands to battle stations.

If anything, the failures of the university to step into the more recent situation are more blatant. Unlike the McCluskey case, where the killer had no ties to the university, both the victim and the apparent victimizer were students, and lived in university housing. Both were part of a campus office designed to help international students ease comfortably into university life while far away from home. Their problems, if anything, should have been much larger blips on the university’s radar.

When campus housing and counseling staff did try to look into the matter, they were stymied by having incorrect or invalid phone numbers, not getting return calls from the endangered woman, or seeking to contact another student with the same name. In retrospect, the university now rightly says, the fact that they were unsuccessful in reaching either student should have caused school staff to step up their efforts to locate both of them and see after their safety.

The fact that the university has, this time, admitted its failures and released a great deal of information on how the most recent death came to pass should help its own community, as well as other universities and institutions, understand the threat and do a better job of seeing to it that such a tragedy is not soon repeated.