Letter from President Randall on the death of Zhifan Dong

Dear University of Utah students, faculty, staff and community,

During my first year serving as your president, I have unfortunately witnessed firsthand the pain and suffering of family, friends and teammates of two of our students who were murdered—Aaron Lowe and Zhifan Dong. I sat with their families, heard the heartache in their voices and saw the pain in their tears. No loved ones should ever have to endure such sorrow. After each immeasurable loss, I have been moved to call for change and to challenge our campus community to do more.

“What can the university do better to serve and protect our students and what role can I play to ensure their safety?” I have asked myself this question repeatedly over the last eleven months. Each time I come to the same conclusion: listen, learn, hold people accountable, be transparent and constantly find ways to improve.

As a public university, the U has a responsibility to serve the public interest and to respect the public’s right to know, in good times or in bad. Of course, it’s always a challenge to be fully transparent while still respecting the privacy of students, faculty, staff and their families. But let me be clear: transparency shines a bright spotlight on our actions. Only by seeing can we improve.

Regarding the death of first-year student Zhifan Dong this past February at the hands of fellow student Haoyu Wang, I believe the university must err on the side of full transparency. Today, the university released a detailed timeline of our employees’ actions before, and as a result of her passing, including known public information related to this case and documents that would ultimately be subject to disclosure under public records laws and policies.

While we have been actively working on an honest and comprehensive self-evaluation of the university’s actions prior to Dong’s death since late February, we delayed the release of a detailed timeline and related documentation and information to protect a pending criminal case. Let me be clear: the university’s examination of the matter and the resulting accountability actions have been ongoing.

Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang, our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings: a delay by former members of our housing services staff in notifying the University of Utah Police Department of indications of intimate partner violence; processes, procedures and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved; and insufficient and unprofessional internal communication. We have addressed each of these areas, including employment actions.

In addition to holding employees accountable, we have updated and clarified emergency procedures for housing staff; restructured the organizational approach to streamline reporting processes; hired a new housing executive director; refined processes for communications between housing staff and university police; and implemented regular audits of conduct, racism and bias incidents in university-managed housing.

In addition, since the tragic murder of Lauren McCluskey in 2018, the U has made broad, sweeping changes to our safety practices to better ensure our students’ safety. We have completely transformed University of Utah Public Safety based on the recommendations of experts and the most recent state audit of our police department. These improvements include but are not limited to: establishing a new chief safety officer position; recruiting new police officers (more than 90% are new since 2019); creating more robust and thorough investigative practices; enhancing training on interpersonal violence intervention; investing in new public safety facilities and equipment; developing a public-facing dashboard; and establishing a center for research on improving campus safety.

When it comes to protecting our students, our job is never done. I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance student safety, and I encourage all of you to do the same—every student, staff member, and faculty. We must always actively prioritize the health and well-being of the students entrusted to our care.

As your President, I will lead through transparency, by taking action and by constantly seeking to do better.

You have my commitment and I ask the same commitment of you.

Taylor R. Randall, President