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Vanderbilt apologizes for using ChatGPT to write message on MSU shooting

Students walk through the Warren College and Moore College area at Vanderbilt University on Feb. 24, 2015, in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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As students at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College grappled with the news of a deadly shooting at Michigan State University last week, those in the education college received an odd message from the administration.

The Thursday email from Peabody College’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion addressed the shooting in Michigan but didn’t refer to any Vanderbilt organizations or resources that students could contact for support. It instead described steps to “ensure that we are doing our best to create a safe and inclusive environment for all.”

“One of the key ways to promote a culture of care on our campus is through building strong relationships with one another,” the first sentence of one paragraph reads.

“Another important aspect of creating an inclusive environment is to promote a culture of respect and understanding,” begins another.

A smaller line of text in parentheses at the bottom of the message revealed that it had been written using the generative artificial intelligence program ChatGPT, as first reported by the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper.

Students blasted the university for using a chatbot to address a harrowed campus community after the Michigan shooting, and Vanderbilt quickly apologized. Nicole Joseph, an associate dean at Peabody’s EDI office who was one of the letter’s three signatories, apologized the next day and said that using ChatGPT was “poor judgment,” the Hustler reported.

Camilla Benbow, Peabody College’s dean, said in a statement Saturday that the message was a paraphrased version of a ChatGPT-written draft and that Vanderbilt would investigate the decision to write and send the message.

“I remain personally saddened by the loss of life and injuries at Michigan State,” Benbow wrote. “ … I am also deeply troubled that a communication from my administration so missed the crucial need for personal connection and empathy during a time of tragedy.”

A Vanderbilt spokesperson directed The Washington Post to Benbow’s statement, which added that Joseph and another assistant dean would step back from positions at Peabody’s EDI office during the investigation.

Benbow and Joseph did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday evening. The Vanderbilt spokesperson did not respond to a question asking whether the university has used ChatGPT in any other official communications.

Peabody College’s letter followed an earlier statement from Vanderbilt Vice Provost and Dean of Students G. L. Black on Feb. 14, one day after the shooting at Michigan State, the Hustler reported.

Black’s statement — like many issued by universities across the U.S. after the shooting turned the East Lansing college campus into a site of terror — consoled students and provided phone numbers for university mental health resources. It appeared to address the school community in more personal language than Peabody’s AI-generated message.

The ChatGPT-written email sent two days later to students in Peabody College, Vanderbilt’s college of education and human development, was sent without the knowledge of university administrators, Benbow said in her statement. University communications are usually subject to multiple reviews before being sent, she added.

Students mocked the message as tone-deaf and disrespectful.

“It’s hard to take a message seriously when I know that the sender didn’t even take the time to put their genuine thoughts and feelings into words,” Samuel Lu, a Vanderbilt sophomore, told the Hustler. “In times of tragedies such as this, we need more, not less humanity.”

Colin Henry, a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt, told The Post via Twitter message that he believed an equity and inclusion office should discuss criticisms of ChatGPT and other generative programs, like their alleged reliance on underpaid workers to moderate content. He called the decision to instead use the program to address students “graceless.”

“I had friends on MSU’s campus in Berkey Hall the night of the shooting,” Henry wrote. “No one expects an institution to comfort you after a tragedy. But you do expect them not to make it worse in a scramble to score PR points.”