Barney took her seat amid her classmates' applause, not knowing that she had broken a dam of silence.
Each December, Salt Lake Tribune editors recognize an individual or group who for better or for worse has led, pushed boundaries, influenced public policy and changed hearts and minds. Without question, Madi Barney is The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahn of the Year.
In 2016, Barney transformed the conversation on campus rape in Utah and emerged as a powerful voice in the nationwide debate on sex crime, one that has bounced from Stanford's Brock Turner to Baylor University to Donald Trump. Perhaps most important, she started a dialogue in which many victims shared their accounts of sexual violence for the first time publicly.
In the weeks following that campus forum, more than 50 current and former students revealed to The Tribune accounts of sexual abuse at BYU. A majority had never reported the crimes, many citing fears of Honor Code retaliation. Twelve who did report said they faced interrogations loaded with a presumption of guilt, and that sex crime investigations often transformed into chastity investigations against them.
Several students and police reported that assailants explicitly used the threat of Honor Code discipline to discourage them from reporting. LGBT students said they faced special risks, as predators have recognized their vulnerability under the school's ban on "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual behavior."
Barney launched an online petition demanding that BYU stop punishing students who report sexual assault; more than 117,000 people signed it.
She then filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which began investigating how BYU handled Barney's case. BYU is the third university in Utah to be added to a list of about 200 colleges facing review under Title IX, the law that forbids sex-based discrimination at all schools that receive federal funding.
State investigators are reviewing the certification of a Utah County sheriff's deputy who gave Barney's police records to the school officials, prompting Barney's discipline. A separate state investigation is reviewing how BYU's police department authorized by the state with full policing powers uses other agencies' investigative records. Internal BYU records leaked to The Tribune show that a campus police lieutenant used his access to a shared records system to search Provo's records in Barney's rape case after an Honor Code investigator asked him for more information. The lieutenant then shared intimate details from Barney's sexual assault medical exam with the Honor Code Office. Both state investigations are still pending. A trial is pending in Barney's rape case.
However, one point of the controversy appears to have been resolved: In October, BYU announced sweeping changes in how it will respond to students who report sexual assault, saying it will restructure the school's Title IX Office and grant amnesty to victims who disclose Honor Code violations.
The school announced that Title IX staff will ensure that information they receive from alleged victims will not be shared with the Honor Code Office without their consent. Students who report sexual assaults will no longer face having their conduct at the time questioned for possible Honor Code violations.
Similar changes are under review at BYU campuses in Idaho and Hawaii.
Events at BYU preceded a wider soul-searching on rape culture in Utah. Sex assault issues gained a higher profile at other Utah schools especially at Utah State University, where a flood of allegations has led to rape charges against former Aggies and Atlanta Falcons football player Torrey Green. Meanwhile, victims and victim advocates pointed to dated but still-circulated teachings by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which suggest that rape deprives a woman of her "virtue," and Mormon cultural norms that hold women responsible for tempting male sexuality.
Madi Barney went to police with no plan to fight Utah's cultural views of sexual violence.
But by speaking publicly and persistently, Barney did more than expose a serious safety problem in Provo. She provoked substantial institutional reforms that have signaled to the broader Utah community a need for new attitudes and approaches toward sexual assault.
"It's hard to be so exposed," Barney told The Tribune this week. "It's hard having no privacy in one of the most private matters of my life. But, you know, it was a sacrifice that I felt like I had to make, to make these changes happen at BYU. If I hadn't spoken out, I don't know where we would be right now."
We acknowledge and applaud her efforts.
Reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this story.
Past Utahn of the Year winners
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes
Same-sex marriage plaintiffs
Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill
Mormons Building Bridges
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank
Elizabeth, Lois and Mary Smart
First responders to tragedies including the Trolley Square shooting rampage and the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster
Latino leaders Jorge Fierro, Andrew Valdez, Ruby Chacon and Alma Armendariz
Pamela Atkinson, advocate for the poor
Utahns killed in Iraq and Afghanistan
Gov. Olene Walker
LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley
Winter Games organizer Mitt Romney
Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson
The letter that sparked the Olympic bribery scandal
Mary Ann Kingston, who suffered a brutal beating after escaping plural marriage
NBA MVP Karl Malone
Readers agree: Madi Barney made a major impact in 2016
Nearly 1,000 readers responded to an online poll to give us their take on who should be Utahn of the Year, and their top selection matched that of Tribune editors.
Madi Barney received more than 300 votes for her willingness to publicly challenge the way Brigham Young University responded to cases of sexual assault, a stand that led to profound changes in campus policy.
By far, she received the most reader support. The next reader pick was Willie Grayeyes, who helped build the coalition of American Indian tribes that pushed President Barack Obama to name a new national monument in the Bears Ears area of San Juan County. That hasn't happened yet, but it could before Obama leaves office.
The next two reader favorites were Gail Miller and "vanishing teachers," a nod to Utah's increasing teaching shortage. Miller is the owner of the Utah Jazz and the vast Miller business empire. She's Utah's richest person and a growing force in public policy, pushing for new homeless shelters and a tax increase to help fund public education.