If you haven’t seen the story about the all-campus condolence email sent by Vanderbilt University after the Michigan State mass shooting—the email that ended with “Paraphrase from Open AI’s ChatGPT”—it’s worth a quick read.
I cringed when I read it, both for the obvious reasons and because I could sort of see how it could have happened.
Many administrative communications are what usually gets called boilerplate. They’re functional, rather than emotionally expressive, and they don’t vary much over time. In practice, it’s not unusual for messages like those to get recycled from year to year. Job ads, for instance, often include a paragraph or two describing the college and the surrounding area; those descriptions aren’t written fresh for each new ad, assuming the college’s location hasn’t changed.
Boilerplate prose saves time and minimizes certain kinds of mistakes. Once the wordsmithing around the annual parking memo has reached a certain level, there’s not much point in continuing to play with it. And it’s easy to make mistakes when dashing off quick messages. Years ago, at a previous college, I made the mistake of including the phrase “welcome back” in the memo inviting folks to fall convocation; the staff who worked 12 months a year let me know, quickly, that they had never left. They were right, of course. It’s the sort of unforced error that makes previous copy that has stood the test of time hold real appeal. Why risk giving offense when some perfectly serviceable prose already exists?
Boilerplate prose gets a free pass on charges of plagiarism because it’s understood as purely institutional. Requiring every “don’t forget the deadline is next week!” email to be bespoke would constitute a waste of time and energy. In practice, it’s not unusual for canned prose to be written originally by assistants, and then sent out under a senior person’s name. The idea is to save time.
For a senior leader with shaky prose skills and a tight schedule, I could imagine making the mental leap from “I’ll have my assistant write it” to “I’ll have ChatGPT write it.” They’re both versions of delegating.
In this case, clearly, that was an egregious miscalculation. Mass shootings are not paperwork deadlines. I do not want to live in a world in which mass shootings are common enough to make community messages of consolation as banal as parking notices. The pastoral side of the job cannot be automated. The medium so thoroughly undermined the message that its recipients were rightly offended. For the message to carry any value at all, it needs to reflect the human side of an identifiable author.
I don’t usually do predictions, but I predict we’ll see more mistakes like these over time. Many senior leaders aren’t terrific writers, and incidents can happen at any moment.
My own bias, of course, is that leaders should be capable writers themselves. That should reduce the temptation to expand the category of boilerplate beyond what’s appropriate. But when that’s just not an option, for whatever reason, they’d better have somebody capable on staff to craft messages when the unthinkable happens. Because it will.