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Vanderbilt University officials suspended for using ChatGPT to send memo to students impacted by mass shooting

“In times of tragedies such as this, we need more, not less humanity,” one student said after shooting message drafted by AI

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 22 February 2023 19:31 GMT
Related video: What Is ChatGPT?

Vanderbilt University officials have stepped back from their jobs pending an investigation after they used ChatGPT to send a memo to students about the mass shooting at Michigan State University.

An email sent on Thursday from Peabody College’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion spoke of the shooting in East Lansing but didn’t mention any resources at Vanderbilt that students could turn to.

The message outlined measures 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 email states. “Another important aspect of creating an inclusive environment is to promote a culture of respect and understanding.”

At the bottom of the email, a parenthesis reveals the method used to write the message: “(Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication, February 15, 2023).”

Three students were killed in the 13 February shooting and five were injured. The gunman died from a self-inflicted gunshot.

The use of the AI programme was initially reported by the Vanderbilt student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler.

Students have criticised the Nashville, Tennessee, university for the use of ChatGPT to send a message about the traumatic event. The university was quick to issue an apology.

An associate dean at Peabody’s EDI office, Nicole Joseph, was one of three people who signed the letter. She apologized the following day, saying that using the AI programme was “poor judgment,” according to The Hustler.

The dean of Peabody College, Camilla Benbow, said in a statement shared with The Independent that the message was a paraphrased version of a draft written by ChatGPT and that the school would look into the decision to use the programme to write the message.

“I remain personally saddened by the loss of life and injuries at Michigan State,” Ms Benbow wrote in her statement. “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 university spokesperson told The Washington Post that Ms Joseph and another assistant dean would not be in their roles at the EDI office during the review of events.

On 14 February, a day after the shooting, the Vanderbilt Vice Provost and Dean of Students GL Black issued a statement similar to those sent out by many other university leaders across the US, comforting students and sharing phone numbers to mental health aid resources available at the school.

More personal language seemed to be used compared to the message written using the AI programme. The message drafted using AI was sent two days later to students at the school’s college of education and human development, and was issued without university administrators being made aware beforehand, Ms Benbow said in her statement. She noted that messages sent out by the school are usually reviewed several times before being issued.

Students blasted the message while speaking to The Hustler.

Sophomore Samuel Lu told the paper that “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”.

“In times of tragedies such as this, we need more, not less humanity,” he added.

PhD student Colin Henry told The Washington Post that an equity and inclusion office should look into criticism of AI programmes, such them using underpaid staff as moderators.

Time magazine reported that OpenAI employed Kenyan staff being paid less than $2 an hour to moderate ChatGPT.

He said it was “graceless” to use the programme to draft the message.

“I had friends on MSU’s campus in Berkey Hall the night of the shooting,” Mr Henry wrote in a message to The Post. “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.”

The Independent has reached out to Vanderbilt for comment.

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