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After Michigan shooting, one university used ChatGPT to offer help to students. It backfired

Students walk between buildings at Vanderbilt University on a grey, wintery day.
Students walk through the Warren College and Moore College area at Vanderbilt University in 2015 in Nashville.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
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Vanderbilt University apologized after sending an email that used the artificial intelligence of a chatbot to address students about the recent shooting at Michigan State.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion sent a message of unity last Thursday to students, calling the shootings that killed three students and injured five others at the East Lansing campus a “tragic reminder of the importance of taking care of each other,” and of creating a “safe and inclusive campus.”

But the Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper, reported that a note at the bottom of the email indicated the message was composed by a chat bot, a text generator.

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The text, which appears in small print, stated “(Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication, February 15, 2023).” Peabody Associate Dean Nicole Joseph, Assistant Dean Hasina Mohyuddin and graduate student Chenxi Zhu signed the email.

A motive has not been determined in the deadly shooting of three students, but police say a note found on the gunman indicated he ‘felt slighted.’

Feb. 16, 2023

According to the Hustler, Joseph issued an apology email Friday and said using the chat bot was “poor judgment.”

“While we believe in the message of inclusivity expressed in the email, using ChatGPT to generate communications on behalf of our community in a time of sorrow and in response to a tragedy contradicts the values that characterize Peabody College,” the follow-up email reads, as reported by the Hustler. “As with all new technologies that affect higher education, this moment gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what we know and what we still must learn about AI.”

The shooting at Michigan State terrorized the campus and evoked an all-too-familiar fear for a student population that came of age during mass shootings.

The email included messages about how connection, respect and understanding establish an inclusive environment, calling it an ongoing process that requires constant reflection and solidarity.

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As our youth grapple with exposure to gun violence during formative years, schools and governments must implement better long-term mental health care to assist them.

Feb. 16, 2023

“In the wake of the Michigan shootings, let us come together as a community to reaffirm our commitment to caring for one another and promoting a culture of inclusivity on our campus,” the Feb. 16 email said. “By doing so, we can honor the victims of this tragedy and work towards a safer, more compassionate future for all.”

ABC News reported that Camilla P. Benbow, the dean of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, said in a statement that she was unaware of the email before it was sent and that the incident is under investigation. ABC News also reported that Benbow said Joseph and Mohyuddin, the assistant dean whose name is also on the Feb. 16 email, have stepped back from their responsibilities with the EDI office while the investigation is underway.

Benbow, Joseph and the school’s communications department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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