The former head of New York University’s financial aid department was sued Friday over what an employee deemed rampant workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.
The lawsuit, filed May 27 in Brooklyn Supreme Court, alleges that Brian Berry, the senior director of financial aid and scholarships at the Greenwich Village university, sexually harassed Paul R. Williams, an employee in the financial aid office, over a period of five months between September 2021 and February of this year. Allegedly, Berry repeatedly sent sexual propositions to his subordinate, often asking him to strip or sleep with him and making lewd comments about his body, even referring to him as “Mr. Swole.”
When Williams was offered a new job at another organization, Berry not only offered him a new job with a 37% raise, but allegedly began badmouthing other candidates for the job he wanted to offer Williams. When Williams told Berry he declined the external job offer, Berry then offered to take him on an all-expenses-paid vacation. A month later, Williams reported Berry’s conduct to NYU’s human resources department, but the university “failed to take appropriate action,” the suit alleges.
“As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiff felt extremely humiliated, degraded, victimized, embarrassed, and emotionally distressed,” Williams’ attorney, Ismail Sekendiz, alleges in the complaint. “Defendants’ discriminatory actions created a hostile working environment, which no reasonable person would tolerate.”
Williams is seeking monetary damages and any “further relief” as determined by the court, and names both Berry and NYU as defendants; Sekendiz declined to comment further when reached by amNewYork Metro, saying “the document speaks for itself.”
Williams was hired by NYU as a financial aid counselor in April 2019, with a salary of $62,000, while Berry arrived at the university in January 2021 to assume the leadership of the financial aid office, after heading the equivalent office at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In September of that year, Williams alleges that Berry asked him to lunch, where his boss started commenting on his appearance and made him feel uncomfortable, but he took in stride “for the sake of a new professional relationship.”
But Berry continued asking Williams to lunch, where conversations became increasingly sexualized, according to the suit. Eventually, Berry would start asking Williams about stripping, suggesting in a text message he should try it because he had “stripper legs.” Berry sent a myriad of creepy messages to Williams in the ensuing months, where the professional and the sexual were inextricably intertwined, discussing potential promotions one moment and “snug tight shorts” in another.
On Nov. 19, Berry allegedly offered Williams $500 to “help [him] out” just after asking him in a text to do “favors” accompanied by a “tongue out emoji.” The next night, he texted Williams “even though your arms and chest are bigger I am in charge lol.”
Shortly after offering Williams a promotion with a $23,000 raise, the employee bought Berry a book for Christmas, as he did for others in the office; Berry returned the favor by buying Williams underwear. Later, Berry again asked Williams about stripping, and displayed an understanding of the problematic nature of the relationship by saying “let me stop before you report me to HR lol.”
The messages continued, with Berry saying he would take Williams on the road as a stripper named “Mr. Swole,” telling him he has a “fruity ass,” telling him to “keep that crotch and booty in your pants,” and repeatedly asking for pictures and to sleep together. He even discussed sex work performed by his friends, saying his chum had made $1,000 by “play[ing] with this Asian guy’s nipples.”
Williams would finally bring the matter to HR in February, but alleges that NYU failed to meaningfully remedy the problem, and in doing so violated city and state anti-discrimination laws. Williams remains an employee of NYU.
Reached for comment, NYU spokesperson John Beckman said that Berry is no longer employed by NYU and that the matter was thoroughly investigated; as such, they expect the suit to be tossed.
“Mr. Berry is no longer employed by the University. When the matter was brought to the University’s attention, we conducted a thorough investigation,” Beckman said in a statement. “Given the responsiveness, thoroughness, and professionalism of our investigation, as well as the seriousness with which NYU takes the issue of sexual harassment, we believe the claims against the University are meritless and expect to prevail in any proceeding.”
Beckman did not say whether Berry was fired as part of the investigation, or if he left for other reasons.
NYU is the largest private university in the country with over 50,000 enrolled students, with campuses in Manhattan and Brooklyn and satellite locations all over the world. It is also one of the most expensive: the school estimates the cost-of-attendance for the 2022-23 school year at a jaw-dropping $83,250, including tuition, room and board, books, transportation, and personal expenses. Despite that, the university’s financial aid packages are often considered to be stingy.
The lawsuit against the educational institution comes just weeks after controversy erupted on campus over the university’s plan to hire cancer researcher David Sabatini at its Grossman School of Medicine, despite Sabatini having recently been fired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over workplace sexual harassment. Following walkouts by students and faculty, the university ultimately decided not to hire Sabatini.
Update (5/27/22 3:30 pm): This story has been updated with a response from NYU.