Penn State can learn from its mistakes, she believes, but needs new leadership, fresh blood -- someone from outside Happy Valley.
"It's a cocoon. It's a bubble. That's why those inside the bubble are really struggling. They're afraid; they're embarrassed; they're struggling with what to do," she said.
"Now the question is, 'do you face reality?'"
'The Penn State way'
Vicky Triponey grew up in a working-class household and was the first person in her family to attend college. Her father was a rabid Penn State football fan, but she chose to go to the University of Pittsburgh, commonly known as Pitt. She got her bachelor's degree in psychology and continued with post-graduate studies, pursuing a career in higher education. She earned her doctorate at the University of Virginia.
She worked at several colleges and universities before encountering her mentor, James Rhatigan, who developed the division of student affairs at Wichita State University. Rhatigan introduced her to Mike Meacham, a young man who had been student body president and worked for the alumni association. They married 21 years ago.
She left Wichita in 1998 for the University of Connecticut, where she helped coach Randy Edsall build up the football program. Edsall, who is now head coach at the University of Maryland, told CNN that they worked hard to ensure that football players lived by the same rules as other students.
"We always taught our guys they weren't better than somebody else," Edsall said. "My whole thing was, we told our guys up front that there was a student code of conduct they had to adhere to. If they violated it, there would be consequences."
Penn State recruited Triponey in 2003. She quickly figured out she was the leading candidate when the university brought on its A game for her interview. Her campus visit coincided with the weekend of "The Thon," a popular dance marathon that students hold to raise money for charity.
"I liked what I heard during the interview," she recalled. "It was a truly impressive place, and I considered it a fabulous next step in my career."
She also heard the expression "the Penn State way" for the first time that weekend. Had she understood its significance, she said, she would have "quickly run in the other direction."
Still, she enjoyed a long honeymoon. She felt she had the support of Penn State's president, Graham Spanier, who unabashedly sang her praises when she was hired and later at professional conferences they both attended.
"I arrived there and was supported, encouraged, and really for the first two years I thought we were doing good things," she said. "We were moving in some good directions. But that second year, in the fall, I started going home and telling Mike, 'They're not getting it. They're not embracing conversations about change.'"
There were controversies about her decisions to cut off funding to a student radio program and revamp the student government.
Spanier assured her that she was right to stick to her guns, but she was "hitting the brick wall in student discipline." Looking back, she says, "I was putting my neck out and taking a stand, but there weren't many people with me."
And then one day in late 2004, as disciplinary sanctions were being considered against a member of the football team, she received a visit from Paterno's wife, who had tutored the player.
He's a good kid, Sue Paterno said. Could they give him a break?
Triponey realized then that she wasn't in Kansas anymore. Or even Connecticut.
By the next year, 2005, she was battling Paterno himself over who controlled how football players were disciplined. Paterno also chafed over enforcing Penn State's code of conduct off campus.
Spanier called a meeting at which Paterno angrily dominated the conversation, Triponey recalled. She summarized the meeting in an e-mail to Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and others, complaining that Paterno "is insistent that he knows best how to discipline his players" and that her department should back off.
She noted that Paterno preferred to keep the public in the dark about player infractions involving violence, and he pushed for not enforcing the student code of conduct off campus. She added that having "a major problem with Coach Paterno should not be our concern" in making disciplinary decisions.
"I must insist that the efforts to put pressure on us and try to influence our decisions related to specific cases ... simply MUST STOP," she wrote. "The calls and pleas from coaches, board members and others when we are considering a case are indeed putting us in a position that does treat football players differently and with greater privilege ... and it appears on our end to be a deliberate effort to use the power of the football program to sway our decisions in a way that is beneficial to the football program."
Curley, who once played for Paterno and according to the Freeh report was widely considered his "errand boy," responded to Triponey by explaining "Joe's frustrations with the system" and the "larger issues that bother him."
Triponey wrote back, complaining about Paterno's "disregard for our role and disrespect for the process." She added, "I don't see how we can continue to trust those inside the football program with confidential information if we are indeed adversaries."
She followed up with another e-mail to Spanier on September 1, 2005, stating her objection to Paterno's attitude and behavior, which she called "atrocious." She said others, including students and their parents, were mimicking him.