Who Was the Woman who Stood Up to Joe Paterno?
Editors Note: Vicky Triponey is the former Vice President of Student Affairs at Penn State who has recently been in the news for her criticisms of the way Joe Paterno handled the discipline of football players. The author of this community post is the founder of the now inactive SafeguardOldState.com, which was often critical of Triponey’s practices at Penn State.
Despite today’s revisionist history, Vicky Triponey was not a crusader against the Penn State administration’s entrenched culture of secrecy. On the contrary, she was its enforcer, and virtually her first act upon assuming her position was to threaten its most vocal critic using the power of the purse.
Long before there was a Louis Freeh report to castigate the Trustees or a Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship to call them to account, there was Radio Free Penn State, a lone voice that dared to suggest that Graham Spanier held too much authority, his administration was too centrally organized and vertically integrated, the University trustees were too disengaged (and thus complicit by default), and that the crucial checks and balances of shared governance had all but evaporated within the University. The campus radio station aired these ideas for more than a decade before it became fashionable. Dr. Triponey inserted herself into that conversation to silence these dangerous, radical, and unacceptable sentiments using the best means at her disposal — denial of University funding.
So many at Penn State recall Vicky Triponey’s time here so unfavorably not because of that which she considers her greatest failure (disciplining football players), but rather for what she regarded as her many “accomplishments.” Bizarrely, for a woman in charge of stewarding student life, she chose to centralize and cloister power in the very ways she now suggests she opposed in speaking with national media.
Today, she recalls herself as the victim of consolidated power. In practice, she helped wipe away the last remnants of an older system that was designed to prevent it. Likely the most remembered aspect of Dr. Triponey’s achievements will be her dismantling of student shared governance. Triponey empowered the student trustee, not only with a coveted title, but also money and resources, to carry out her plan to dissolve the student government, going so far as to attempt a campus-wide referendum justified with dozens of allegedly forged petitions, all offered in identical pink handwriting. For decades, the validity of such documents had been adjudicated by a student supreme court, a body Vicky Triponey had already stripped of its authority. Students at Penn State’s peer institutions in the Big Ten recoiled at this naked power grab, taking the extraordinary step of refusing to recognize the flaccid “advocacy” group she had installed to replace the student self-government. The last five years of campus government reform efforts have been a testament to the dysfunctional, personality-dependent system she sought to impose.
Vicky Triponey’s achievements in other areas include the increase and control of student activities and facilities fees that she created an administratively-led board to oversee, erasing a traditional student role of self-governance that in previous eras led to students’ creation of the fraternity homes of State College and, in fact, the very students’ Hetzel Union Building.
An insular “Cabinet of Student Leaders,” and a clubbish approach to governing meant you were either an ally or an enemy — something many community stakeholders discovered too late in an environment less collaborative than caustic, and less open than agenda-driven. Success often could be measured by proximity to power.
Vicky Triponey’s personality was graceful, but her demeanor imperious in her dealings with many students during her three busy years, and Safeguard Old State grew as perhaps the most visible symbol for student displeasure with her approach to leadership. It came to represent a unified student opposition that arose in response to an adversarial situation that was not of its making.
Vicky Triponey seemed to create her own enemies (and many are sharing their own recollections) and did so almost uniformly through her attempts to “modernize” student life by, perversely, curtailing authentic student leadership roles.
There is also something that no one will find among Safeguard Old State’s chronicles and criticisms of Vicky Triponey or other primary source materials from the time: any knowledge or writing of her now-public clashes with Coach Joe Paterno. No one we knew had any knowledge of her disputes within the University administration, and the record should reinforce that her own troubles with students resulted neither from her clashes with Joe Paterno nor her attitude toward athletics. Student displeasure with Vicky Triponey flowed truly from experience, and the aggregate of frustration, disenfranchisement, and disregard so many student leaders felt in facing the results of her agenda.
These are recollections brought back to mind after five years as a result of Vicky Triponey’s decision to speak to the media about herself in the wake of a tragic pedophilia scandal.
I have not really thought of Vicky Triponey in these five years since her dismissal — and God-willing, this will be the last time I ever write about her — but evidently she still thinks about us.
We of the Nittany Valley are at the dawn of a new era in the life of our town and University. We are faced with building up, with recovering the best aspects of our legacy with an eye toward our history and experience.
So if it’s true that she was The Woman Who Stood Up to Joe Paterno, she was also The Woman Who Towered Over Student Life. To avoid history repeating, it’s worth a moment to recall the full scope and complete portrait of her time in our little Nittany Valley.