Vicky Triponey, the College’s interim vice president for Student Affairs, spoke about her experience as “the woman who stood up to Joe Paterno” on Thursday, Jan. 31 in the Politics Forum.
Triponey’s speech “Evolutions of an Ethical Standard: Lessons from Inside Higher Education” covered not only her impressive 30 years of experience in higher education, but also the important lessons she learned fromherwork that taught her to help people stand up and notice what’s right and what’s wrong.
Triponey said that she had been considered a “leader in her field,” and that she had a “national reputation for her work.” She even said that, having attended the University of Pittsburgh, she didn’t initially want to take the job interview for vice president that she had been offered in 2003 at Penn State.
But after consideration, she realized that this was a “premier career move” and also a “perfect fit” personally.
When she first started working at Penn State, Triponey explained that she was “praised constantly from everyone,” up until she started running into problems with the head football coach, Joe Paterno in 2007. A group of football players were involved in a disciplinary issue that required her attention. Emails that were exchanged between Paterno and Triponey concerning the responsibility of discipline of the football players circulated the media later when the Sandusky affair became public knowledge in 2011.
Triponey said that she had “decided to take a stand behind closed doors” in regards to the discipline case.
Paterno argued, according to Triponey, that he should assume the responsibility of punishment for the football players’ behavioral issues, while she argued that behavioral issues were to be dealt with by Student Affairs office or legal officials.
However, after a while she found that none of her colleagues were supporting her on the issue. After being told that she no longer “fit in with the Penn State way,” and after receiving various harassments, Triponey resigned from her position and was eventually ran out of town.
What she found disappointing, though, besides feeling forced to leave her job at State College and to sign a settlement agreeing to not say anything about the University, was that she couldn’t find a new job.
In November 2011, incidents inside Penn State began to unfold publicly. Triponey said that what she heard in the media “broke her heart.” Having experienced the culture of Penn State, she realized how the circumstances could have led to what occurred in the football program.
After being approached by the media, Triponey eventually began to speak out and trust reporters to tell the truth and uncover the facts. She worked to help these reporters and the public understand the culture of Penn State that might help to explain why this had happened.
Triponey quoted a colleague at Penn State who told her, “In 40 years, no one’s stood up to (Paterno).” However, Triponey denied the hero status that her story might infer.
“I’m not a hero,” she said. “If I was, I would have fixed it.”
Triponey found the strength to speak out and share her story in the number of people who responded to her publicity.
Today, she urges people to give a voice to conscience. She explained how to discover a situation that is wrong by asking who is in charge, identifying groupthink, and recognizing unwillingness to confront bad behavior. She said that institutions need “more diversity of thought” and that it’s important for students and teachers to “focus on values and principles to anchor success.”
The most valuable lesson that Triponey took with her from her experience is to “leave each situation better than how you found it.”
Theja Varre, sophomore international studies major, learned a lot from Triponey’s lecture.
“I realized how much power, as current students, that our voices have,” Varre said. “It really gave me perspective that allowed me to be thankful for my voice and to take advantage to stand up against something that is wrong.”