By many appearances, Sherita Golden was making an impact on equity issues at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

As chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, she more than doubled the number of groups that address the needs of underrepresented people, such as African American and LGBQT employees, from three to seven. She implemented an annual residency recruitment program, which resulted in a “sustained increase” in the diversity of residence programs. And top leaders at Johns Hopkins have gone as far as to describe her career as “extraordinary.”

But Golden stepped down Tuesday, two months after a monthly newsletter she wrote included her definition of “privilege” that caused outrage among conservative groups and high-profile figures including Donald Trump Jr. and Elon Musk.

In Golden’s January newsletter, she defined privilege as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who are in a specific social group. Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels, and it provides advantages and favors to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of other groups.”

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She then went on to name groups that are granted privilege, including: white people, able-bodied people, heterosexuals, cisgender people, males, Christians, middle or owning class people, middle-aged people and English-speaking people.

The newsletter quickly caught fire online with conservatives who lambasted it.

The X account @EndWokeness, which is self-described as: “Fighting, exposing, and mocking wokeness,” posted the January newsletter.

Musk reposted the @EndWokeness post with the caption: “This must end!”

Soon the top brass at Hopkins weighed in.

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A January email from Theodore L. DeWeese, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Kevin W. Sowers, president of Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, wrote that Golden’s January newsletter included “a definition of privilege that runs counter to the values of our institution, and our mission and commitment to serve everyone equally. Dr. Golden heard the feedback from our community, sincerely apologized, and retracted the definition. We fully support and appreciate her decision to do so, and as leaders of Johns Hopkins Medicine, we, too, repudiate this language.”

Tuesday, the pair wrote that Golden stepped down. She will continue her career with Hopkins as the Hugh P. McCormick Family Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism.

“She has been a valuable member of the Johns Hopkins Medicine leadership team, and, like many of you, we wanted her to stay in her role, but we respect her decision,” they wrote. “… We are looking forward to the next phase in her extraordinary career.”

In the same email, the two leaders wrote that they will convene a search committee and conduct “a thorough national search” to find a replacement for Golden’s former position. Inez Stewart, chief human resources officer at Johns Hopkins Medicine, will lead the office in the meantime, according to the email.

Johns Hopkins declined to comment beyond the letter.

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Golden has remained relatively quiet throughout the controversy — other than communicating through university channels and issuing an apology for the January newsletter.

Golden is the latest example of what critics say is an attack on Black women, DEI positions and inclusive initiatives throughout the country.

Conservative groups have successfully led campaigns to ban literature in schools and libraries — mostly by BIPOC and gender minority groups. And history textbooks have also been edited to remove topics of slavery and discrimination in the U.S.

Some critics also pointed to Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s first Black woman president, who resigned following a series of controversies stemming from the university’s response to the Hamas attack on Israel, her controversial congressional testimony and later allegations of plagiarism.

The University of Florida announced this month it eliminated its chief diversity officer position and other positions and programs associated with diversity, equity and inclusion. This followed a law passed last year by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that banned diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public colleges.

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In January, a group of hundreds of students and staff at Hopkins sent Sowers and DeWeese a letter of support for Golden.

In the letter, the group said Golden’s definition “reflects the well known concept of privilege. It acknowledges that there are certain dimensions of a person’s identity that can confer benefits that are not readily accessible to others.”

The letter then objected to Sowers and DeWeese writing that Golden’s definition of privilege runs “counter to the values of our institution and our mission.”

That comment “demonstrates a lack of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and fails to recognize the need for us to address inequities in our community,” the staff and student letter reads.

“We stand in full support of Dr. Sherita Golden, the Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. She is a well respected and recognized leader in diversity, health equity and inclusion,” the letter reads.

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In an open letter Wednesday from the Black Faculty and Staff Association for Johns Hopkins to Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, DeWeese and Sowers, the group expressed displeasure with the news of Golden’s resignation.

“We received with deep concern and frustration the news of Dr. Sherita Golden’s resignation as Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dr. Golden has been an invaluable member of our leadership team, and her departure leaves a significant void within our institution,” the letter reads.

The association described Golden’s tenure at Hopkins as “impressive.”

The association chided the institution, saying: “Then, in January of this year, instead of supporting Dr. Golden and offering context about Johns Hopkins’ values and the hard histories from which they are drawn, the institution unjustly disavowed and repudiated her for the very work that she had been tasked to do.”

The group writes that, while it understands and respects Golden’s decision to “transition” to her new role, “we cannot overstate the impact of her departure on our institution and the communities we serve. Her dedication, grace under pressure, and unwavering commitment to our mission have left an indelible mark on Johns Hopkins Medicine.”

This week, multiple students and faculty at Hopkins expressed similar displeasure with the news of Golden’s resignation. Most declined to be identified out of fear of retribution from the institution.

“I’m currently still on the job interview trail, and Johns Hopkins holds too much sway in the medical field,” said one Asian American student, who added that she thought the decision was “pretty awful.”

A white employee said he signed the petition but also declined to use his name because he “didn’t want to get fired.”

“I am disheartened by the overreaction to the well accepted definition of privilege and the response from Johns Hopkins Leadership,” he said. “I hope the community knows that the many employees at Johns Hopkins do care deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion for our patients and colleagues. I am sad that the organization didn’t defend Sherita and wish they would have used this as an opportunity to address these challenging topics head on.”

Conservatives rejoiced in the news of Golden’s resignation.

“DEI will weed it self out. Once companies and institutions who have instituted DEI start to fail, they will realize that they have made a major blunder. In the meantime companies and institutions who hired the best will move ahead and prosper. Bad decisions have consequences,” one commenter, Awakeone, wrote on a Fox News article that received more than 3,000 comments. Most of them were critical of Golden.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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