Top University officials allegedly manipulated a Perelman School of Medicine investigation into years of workplace abuse allegations within the Gene Therapy Program in order to protect its financial interests and director Jim Wilson, according to internal reports obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Following our previous reporting on GTP’s toxic workplace environment, based upon testimonies of 11 current and former GTP employees, the DP obtained a selection of documents alleging that Penn administrators covered up a lengthy investigation into the program’s workplace and its leadership.
The initial 21-page report detailing this investigation’s findings was ultimately slimmed down to a four-page draft following intervention from Penn’s Office of General Counsel, with the fifth and final draft devoid of all allegations against Wilson and GTP’s Executive Director of Research Administration Monique Molloy. The Office of General Counsel represents Penn and Penn Medicine in legal matters, and initiates action to protect the institution and manage risks, according to its website.
Time and again, employees have alleged that Penn is protecting Wilson and GTP by burying the grievances of the program’s lower-level employees, since the University stands to benefit from Wilson’s other biotechnology companies — which have received hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital financing and have ties to Penn. GTP employs more than 300 people and is working to develop therapeutics against more than 50 diseases, while managing dozens of research projects using gene therapy, gene editing, and mRNA technologies.
Many employees have filed formal complaints to multiple University offices over at least the past decade, seeking help from GTP’s HR department, the Medical School’s HR department, the University’s Title IX Office, and the confidential Ombuds Office. Some had even hired their own lawyers to demand an end to the abuse.
Calling the investigation a “shameless cover-up,” Medical School HR administrator Michelle Hackett — who co-led the investigation into GTP with her supervisor, Medical School HR director Al Johnson — wrote a complaint to Penn’s Senior Vice President for HR Jack Heuer in September 2021. Hackett wrote she is “extremely concerned” that the Office of General Counsel overhauled the investigation she and Johnson were initially tasked with leading — despite sufficient evidence that Wilson and Molloy were both aware of the workplace issues and did not take visible action.
Johnson, her supervisor, told her that Penn would not address complaints against Wilson because of the amount of money he generates for the University through GTP and his other gene therapy companies, Hackett wrote.
“It is our job to protect the employees of Penn, not to cover up the identities of the harassers in an effort to protect the financial interests of the institution,” Hackett wrote in her letter to Heuer, condemning the University’s handling of employee complaints and the investigation.
This investigation into the workplaces of GTP and the Orphan Disease Center, an affiliated research center in the Medical School led by Wilson, was launched in 2019 under Hackett and Johnson in response to employee complaints regarding racial and pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, unprofessional and unethical office behavior, bullying, extreme work disorganization, and retaliation against those who speak to the Medical School’s HR Office. After its suspension in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the investigation was reopened and soon closed in March 2021.
The DP reviewed five drafts of the investigation reports conducted by the Medical School’s HR team, which consisted of interviews with at least 13 complainants, email correspondence between Medical School HR representatives, senior University HR officials, and the Office of General Counsel, as well as records of interviews conducted as part of the investigation.
Wilson, Molloy, Heuer, and Johnson did not respond to the DP’s requests for comment. Emails sent to the Office of General Counsel were also met with silence. Hackett is no longer listed as a University HR official, per Penn’s HR staff directory.
University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote in an email to the DP that “the University of Pennsylvania takes employee workplace concerns very seriously. There are multiple reporting offices to which workplace complaints can be made. Although the University is unable to comment on specific personnel matters, all employee complaints are investigated, and action is taken as appropriate.”
The profit generated by GTP and Wilson’s intertwined private practices influences the University’s handling of employee complaints against the program’s toxic workplace environment, according to the DP’s review of these documents and interviews with former and current GTP employees.
“[Jim Wilson] is the most powerful person on campus. He is untouchable. That’s the way to think about it. They are untouchable,” an employee involved with the Medical School’s investigation, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation from their employer, told the DP. “They have hurt and damaged so many people. People that didn’t deserve it. None of them deserve what happened to them.”
Wilson came under national scrutiny nearly two decades ago for leading a gene therapy trial that caused the death of an 18-year-old, Jesse Gelsinger, leading to several research violations by Wilson and detrimental action against the University’s affiliated research operations. Federal regulators had indefinitely extended a ban on all human gene experimentation at Penn’s Institute for Human Gene Therapy, which it ultimately shut down.
Now at the helm of one of the nation’s leading gene therapy programs, Wilson has not only revived Penn’s reputation in the field, but is building an empire of University-affiliated biotechnology companies.
In recent years, Wilson has founded several companies to develop therapeutics based on research done at GTP and Penn’s Orphan Disease Center. Penn and Wilson would receive licensing revenues based on the successful development and commercialization of these technologies. Wilson’s companies include Passage Bio, G2 Bio Companies, iECURE, REGENXBIO, and Scout Bio.
“He helps the University out and they help him out,” a current GTP employee, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation from his employer, told the DP, referring to Wilson.
Wilson was listed in the initial draft of the Medical School’s investigation as one of five GTP leaders accused by complainants of creating an “unprofessional and toxic workplace” — and was mentioned by name 41 times. The second draft mentioned Wilson 13 times, though Wilson and Molloy were removed as accused parties. By the final draft, Wilson’s and Molloy’s names — and the investigation findings which implicated them — were completely removed.
“It can be deduced that Dr. Wilson is aware of the damaging conditions which his employees have been subjected to; however, no effort has been made to correct the situation,” the first investigation draft, authored by Hackett in January 2020, states. The initial four out of five drafts concluded that Wilson was aware of, and made no visible effort to correct, his program’s toxic workplace environment.
No disciplinary action was recommended for any GTP employee following the investigation, according to a summary of the investigation findings written by Johnson and sent to Molloy dated May 21, 2021, though recommendations were harsher in the initial drafts.
“A primary concern is the potential reputational damage to the GTP,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson recommended that GTP leadership take steps to ensure that employees feel comfortable approaching GTP’s own HR team with concerns, including partnering with the Medical School’s HR and making GTP employees aware that they can also take concerns to Medical School’s HR. The final investigation report had admitted that GTP’s HR department works in an isolated manner, often handling many HR-related matters on its own and “sometimes in ways that do not align with University practice.”
Johnson also recommended leadership coaching for Jessica Alkins, GTP’s senior director of organizational strategy and operations, who was one of the program’s leaders accused of creating an “unprofessional and toxic workplace” during the investigation. According to the fifth and final draft of the investigation reports, several staff had confirmed Alkins — who leads the program’s HR and administrative functions — kept a “dead to me” list to target employees and retaliate against those who fall out of favor with her, encouraged staff to “snitch” on their peers to HR, and contributed to a workplace environment where women felt unsafe to disclose their pregnancies.
“This has greatly contributed to what has been described as an environment that thrives on paranoia, mistruths, cruelty and a blatant attempt to isolate the employees from the University at large,” initial drafts of the investigation reports say. This statement was ultimately one of many omitted from the final investigation report, which contained more lenient recommendations regarding Alkins’ workplace responsibilities. Alkins did not respond to the DP’s requests for comment.
Also omitted from the final report were concerns raised by two individuals — who were employed at GTP during 2019 and 2020, the same time as the investigation — about Wilson’s business practices.
The former employees had alleged that Wilson and Molloy earned money from “shell companies,” launched with the intent to enable Wilson to circumvent University agreements around clinical trial sponsorship and governance.
Though these allegations were detailed in the first three drafts of the investigation reports, and briefly mentioned in the fourth draft, they were not investigated because they fell outside the scope of the Medical School’s HR’s probe into GTP’s workplace issues.
In retaliation to the conclusion of the investigation, Hackett’s aforementioned complaint to Heuer bared additional details about settlement agreements offered by the University to employees in exchange for their silence, University policy violations committed by GTP HR leaders, as well as the program’s abnormally high turnover rate.
From January 2017 to December 2020, 182 GTP staff members either resigned from or left the department — some after facing involuntary termination, Hackett wrote. “Biotech turnover is around 10 to 11% on average, which is good,” a former GTP employee previously told the DP, noting that GTP’s turnover rate in 2020 was allegedly more than twice this figure.
The University has also offered settlement agreements to former GTP employees, one of which was detailed in Hackett’s document. Through these agreements, employers generally provide a sum of money to a former employee, in exchange for the former employee agreeing to release all legal claims they may have against the employer.
Alkins terminated a former employee during the summer of 2020, and in doing so, violated University Policy No: 621 Performance Improvement/Discipline, Hackett’s document states. Alkins had fired the employee for not consulting her before he gave an oral warning to a staff member, which the employee did not need to do according to the policy.
The employee had filed a request for a staff grievance panel hearing, according to Hackett’s document, for which he solicited statements from other former GTP employees describing the toxicity of the workplace environment. According to Hackett, it was determined during a call with Johnson, Penn’s Executive Director for Staff and Labor Relations Jeffrey Rowland, and Jennifer Feldman, associate general counsel, that the statements were too damaging and that a panel hearing was “not in the best interest of the University.”
The employee was ultimately offered a settlement, which he accepted.
The University has maintained that the investigation into GTP was conducted fairly and reached appropriate conclusions, according to communication between Penn administrators and Medical School HR.
Rowland had emailed Hackett in October 2021 in response to her complaint, writing that the investigations conducted by the Medical School HR, and the Title IX Office and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, were “thorough and appropriate.” He added that the Title IX and OAA/EOP investigations did not find evidence of discrimination or violation of Penn’s sexual harassment or other University policies, and that the findings and recommendations from both of those investigations as well as the Medical School HR investigation were “correct based on the evidence.” Rowland acknowledged that Hackett’s report was revised several times, which he said is common in this kind of case.
“The focus now is on ensuring that the GTP work environment is respectful and welcoming and that GTP employees know they can go to [Medical School] HR or any other appropriate University office with any concerns or questions,” Rowland wrote to Hackett in October 2021.
Hackett then responded to Rowland, writing in an email that Penn’s conduct during investigations had been governed by efforts to make sure its findings are defensible, which she wrote results in biased reports and findings that have a “detrimental effect not only on the employees who complained but also on the overall culture of Penn and its ability to create an environment where employees feel safe in making reports.”
Rowland, Feldman, and the Office of General Counsel’s Senior Vice President Wendy White did not respond to the DP’s requests for comment. Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer Michele Rovinsky-Mayer also did not respond to requests for comment. The DP’s request for comment from Sam Starks, Penn’s executive director of the OAA/EOP, was directed to the aforementioned statement from Ozio. The DP’s request for comment on the investigation from the Medical School’s Office of Communications was redirected to Ozio, and left unanswered.
A current GTP employee, who, as previously mentioned, requested anonymity in fear of retaliation from his employer, remains one of many employees who frames the program as one that prioritizes profit over employees’ health and working conditions and operates with complete lack of organization driven by the program’s upper management.
Susan Faust, founder of NxGEN Vector Solutions and former GTP postdoctoral researcher from 2010 to 2013, said that Wilson and upper management are responsible for fostering the alleged toxic workplace environment. Faust told the DP that she was fired from the program after co-inventing a breakthrough AAV gene therapy technology during her time at Penn that directly competed against Wilson’s technology used in his startups.
“Sometimes, you can have a ‘bad boss’ or a boss who has a bad day, but Jim Wilson’s lab, the character and culture of that GTP program is so dysfunctional, that it just blows everything else away,” Faust said. “I’ve been in multiple research labs and multiple gene therapy labs and I have never seen anything like it, and I don’t think I ever will again.”