Claudine Gay’s recent resignation as Harvard’s president has shed light on the fundamental problem with many institutions’ plagiarism policies and perceptions—they focus more on cheating than on learning. This underscores the need to revise how we view and respond to plagiarism by prioritizing learning, attending to the complexities of rhetorical expectations, and making room for the writing process.

The complaints about Gay’s writing identify instances of plagiarism—particularly passages that don’t meet Harvard’s expectations about quoting or paraphrasing. If Gay had turned in this work as a Harvard student, she would have been subjected to Harvard’s policy that students who submit work “without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.” These consequences are consistent with other policies at R1 institutions across the country.

The independent reviewers tasked with investigating the first plagiarism allegations publicized in October didn’t do Gay any favors by identifying these as “a few instances of inadequate citation” instead of acknowledging them as plagiarism according to their institution’s definition of the term. This treatment led an undergraduate who sits on Harvard’s Honor Council to clarify, “There is one standard for me and my peers and another, much lower standard for our University’s president.”

The problem of this double standard lies not in the apparent leniency Harvard showed its president but in the comparative severity with which institutions respond to similar infractions by students. This points to a wider issue with the way plagiarism is framed, defined, and responded to across institutions of higher education. With its etymological connection to the Latin plagiarius—“kidnapper”—plagiarism has consistently been equated with criminality and is often presented as a “problem” to be fixed or punished. This allows campuses to control the writing process by scrutinizing the product. Yet, doing so obscures the goal of writing in the academic context: acquiring and dispersing knowledge. In classrooms, writing’s exigence lies in the learning process and the transferable knowledge and skills that are developed through writing.

Certainly, there are some forms of misconduct that go beyond limited rhetorical awareness (e.g. purchasing or selling an essay, claiming others’ ideas as one’s own). These instances unjustifiably curtail the intended learning process. However, the issue of cheating should be a separate conversation—one that raises investigable questions of motivation and purpose.

As writing center directors at a liberal arts college in central New York, our pedagogy is grounded in helping writers learn through the writing process and navigate the challenges of academic expectations. Higher education institutions need to reframe plagiarism to provide room to focus on rhetoric and learning. As writing scholars Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris Anson, and Rebecca Moore Howard have asserted, “All writers are always in a developmental trajectory.” They need to be provided with productive contexts where they can learn how to work through various rhetorical situations without fear of retribution.

Our call to separate the concept of cheating from plagiarism and to reframe the (mis)management of sources in terms of learnable, generic practices isn’t anything new. However, the circumstances surrounding Claudine Gay bring a new urgency to respond to these concerns. We need learning-centered plagiarism policies, guidelines that address the problem of cheating but separate it from the intertwining realities of originality, compositional labor, rhetorical flexibility, and disciplinary expectations. We need to move away from legalistic positions about plagiarism that seek to assume criminal intent or rationalize ignorance. As learners, writers need to be given opportunities to re-try and revise. Claudine Gay has acknowledged that this is what she has started doing— requesting that the publications allow her to make corrections in her articles. Instead of rejecting writers accused of source mismanagement, institutions should implement policies that invite them to learn, grow, and keep writing.