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Univ. of Utah to pay $5 million to parents of slain international student Zhifan Dong

“It is our hope that ... her memory will inspire others to help prevent intimate partner violence and save lives on campus and in all our communities,” Dong's parents said.
Zhifan Dong with her mom and dad.
Zhifan Dong with her mom and dad.Courtesy Dong family

The University of Utah announced this week that it will pay a $5 million settlement to the parents of an international student from China who was killed last year. 

Zhifan Dong, 19, died in what police say was a domestic violence homicide in a Salt Lake City motel room on Feb. 11, 2022. Her then-boyfriend and fellow student, Haoyu Wang, has been charged with her death. An internal review the university published in July showed that school housing staff members failed multiple times to recognize Dong was in danger in the weeks leading up to her death.

“While we continue to mourn Zhifan’s death, we are grateful to take this important step toward justice for our daughter,” Dong’s father, Mingsheng Dong, and her mother, Junfang Shen, said in a statement Tuesday about the agreement. “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.”

Wang, 26, has been charged with murder and is incarcerated. He has been declared incompetent to stand trial and has pleaded not guilty through his attorney, Joseph C. Alamilla.

In the settlement, the school recognized its failure to protect Dong. 

Zhifan Dong.
Zhifan Dong.Courtesy Dong Family

“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,” the school said.

University President Taylor Randall said the agreement demonstrates the school’s “seriousness in honoring Zhifan Dong” and “commitment to the ongoing work of addressing all aspects of student safety.”

Dong’s “murder is a reminder that intimate partner violence is a societal problem that transcends borders and cultures, and manifests in many ways,” Randall said in a statement. “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.”

Dong’s parents said in an interview in July that the university had not been forthcoming about missteps in responding to their daughter’s safety concerns.   

“We felt betrayed and lied to,” they said. “This is bureaucratic arrogance, contempt for life, and an unforgivable mistake.”

On Jan. 14, 2022, nearly a month before she was killed, Dong alerted the school housing department that Salt Lake City police had arrested Wang two days earlier and accused him of assaulting her during an altercation, according to university documents. But housing employees didn’t flag the arrest to school police until a month later — after Dong had disappeared. Records also showed that staff members repeatedly confused Dong’s name with Wang’s and mistakenly called the phone number of another student who shared the same name as Wang, who is also an international student from China.   

The school said the agreement will be voted on in the coming days, as any legal settlement in Utah involving a state entity that exceeds $1 million requires legislative approval. (Gov. Spencer Cox has already signed off on the resolution.) The settlement, which won’t include state appropriations or funds from student tuition, resolves “outstanding legal claims against the university,” the university said in an official statement. After the internal review, the school took disciplinary action against three housing employees, and two others resigned.

In addition to the financial settlement, the school said it will create a memorial on campus in Dong’s memory. 

Dong is the second University of Utah student in four years to be killed after having filed domestic violence reports to school officials. Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2018, had called campus police more than 20 times to report harassment. In 2020, the McCluskeys secured a multimillion-dollar settlement from the university through Parker & McConkie, the law firm representing the Dong family.