A trove of documents released by the University of Utah on Tuesday reveals a series of failures leading up to the death of a Chinese student, allegedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.
Salt Lake City police found international student Zhifan Dong, 19, dead in an off-campus motel room on Feb. 11, when they responded to reports from the University of Utah police department that a man was threatening to kill his girlfriend, officials said. Dong’s former boyfriend, Haoyu Wang, 26, was also in the room when police arrived and claimed he had killed Dong before trying to take his own life with drugs, according to the report. He is also an international student from China who was studying at the University of Utah, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Wang has been charged with murder and the attorney representing him, Joseph C. Alamilla, entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
He will face a competency hearing on Aug. 8, according to court documents. “Once that determination is made, we are prepared to move forward to trial and to vigorously defend against the claims made against him to a jury of his peers,” Alamilla said, adding in part that “there are mental health issues concerning everyone involved in this case that will need to be addressed prior to trial.”
For weeks before Dong’s death, the university knew she was in a dangerous intimate partner violence situation, according to a timeline released by the university. On Jan. 14, Dong reported Wang’s suicidal ideations to housing staff and made them aware that her boyfriend had been arrested by police two days earlier after an altercation with her, the timeline notes. She was issued a temporary protective order by police after the incident. The university added in the timeline that there is currently “no process or regulation requiring local police departments to notify colleges or universities of arrests or protective orders involving students.”
Bailey McGartland, Dong’s roommate who is also a student at the school, told the campus newspaper she helped Dong file reports of domestic violence and requests for wellness checks.
“I felt so angry,” McGartland told the Daily Utah Chronicle. “It was absolutely preventable.”
The documents, which were made public after The Salt Lake City Tribune pushed for public records on the case to be released, describe how former campus-housing employees delayed notifying the university’s police department about reports of intimate partner violence. They also provide evidence of “insufficient and unprofessional internal communication,” University President Taylor Randall said, as well as “processes, procedures and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved.”
“Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang, our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings,” Randall said.
Administrators also chastised housing staff in a letter to them in mid-March for not elevating Dong’s case to a “welfare” matter, a higher classification of concern. The letter was among the documents released this week.
Dong’s parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, who are from China’s Henan province, said that the university had “failed” their daughter.
“We trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety, and they betrayed that trust,” they said in a statement provided to NBC News by their lawyer. “They knew Zhifan was in serious danger but failed to protect her when she needed it the most. We do not want her death to be in vain.”
Their lawyer, Brian C. Stewart, of the firm Parker & McConkie, said in an email that the family had retained his firm and planned to sue the university for failing to take the necessary steps to protect Dong.
The same firm also secured a multimillion-dollar settlement from the university in October 2020 in a wrongful death suit. In that case, a track athlete named Lauren McCluskey had called campus police more than 20 times to report being harassed by an ex-boyfriend before he killed her in October 2018. University officials had cited improvements in communication and coordination between its public safety and other departments since McCluskey’s death, but an independent audit released in April, which was after Dong’s death, identified weak points such as a lag in officers receiving timely information.
Stewart said in a statement that it is “inexcusable that the University continues to make the same mistakes with the same tragic consequences.”
The university will implement regular audits of conduct, racism and bias incidents in university-managed housing, among other reforms, the school’s president said.
Misidentification was among the failures in Dong’s case
Among the missteps by the University of Utah leading up to Dong’s death, her name was repeatedly confused with Wang’s in a meeting with housing staff, internal documents released by the university show. University officials also mistakenly called the number of another student on campus who shared the same name as Wang, according to the timeline. University employees eventually reached the correct Haoyu Wang.
Misidentification can be an example of racist behavior rooted in colonialism and is a common problem faced by many Asians in the U.S., including international students, four professors who study Asian American and Asian diaspora studies said.
“There’s a lot of longstanding research on facial recognition that tells us we’re more likely to recognize people of our own race, and categorize people of other races,” said Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University. “Some of the research shows that contact with another race kind of reduces that bias.”
Misidentification of people of Asian descent by Westerners dates all the way back to European colonialism in China, according to Mae Ngai, an Asian American studies professor at Columbia University. She said colonists didn’t “bother to register what any individual looked like, because they didn’t see them as individuals.”
As Chinese people immigrated to the United States, racism followed. In the 19th century, Chinese people often were convicted of crimes by all-white juries who had difficulty distinguishing Chinese people from one another, Ngai writes in her book, “The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics.”
“That’s a very long history,” she said. “That idea, that Chinese are just a massive, undifferentiated, not fully formed person, persisted.”
Takeo Rivera, an assistant professor at Boston University who teaches Asian American literature, said the sense of “interchangeability” of people of Asian descent still infects American society today, particularly in higher education, where there is a disproportionate reliance on international students for tuition dollars.
Dong’s case “really is a compounding of orientalist interchangeability with the patriarchy of power and control that we see kind of cross-culturally from straight men,” Rivera said.
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233), or go to www.thehotline.org for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines as well.