Ben Gebre-Medhin

PhD Candidate, Sociology, UC Berkeley


I’m a currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley in the Department of Sociology. I’ve spent much of the last two decades exploring the relationship between universities, and the students and faculty which inhabit them, and political and social development around the world. My graduate work has been sponsored by the US Department of Education (Javits Fellowship) and the NAEd/Spencer Foundation. My most recent work on the historical political economy of US higher education, "Association, Service, Market: Higher Education in American Political Development" (Stevens & Gebre-Medhin 2016), was was published in The Annual Review of Sociology. In addition to pursuing my research agenda, I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate level courses in sociology, education, and science and technology studies.

My dissertation is focused on how status is contested, and how instability is managed, among elite universities in the organizational field of higher education. The empirical focus is on how Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley produced and responded to the MOOC movement of 2012. Using computational text analysis, observations, and interviews with administrators, faculty, and staff associated with crafting MOOC strategy at these universities I evaluate how the rise of computer science, and computer scientists, impacts the institution and organizational field of higher education.

Originally from Cambridge, MA, I spent much of the decade before returning to graduate school in the Global South. My intellectual and personal interests in university students and civic life drew me toward substantive experiences in international youth non-profits in Eastern Europe, East Africa, and the Middle East. My passion for research and student civic participation began while completing research for my undergraduate dissertation, “The Development of Democracy in Eritrea”, for which I had my first fieldwork experience conducting interviews in Eritrea.



Using the case of online tertiary education, my mixed methods dissertation evaluates how computer scientists and engineers have used frames associated with the internet to pursue wide ranging reform projects, and how these projects have been received by other actors in the field. While the organization and field level outcomes of the MOOC movement remain uncertain, understanding the process by which this group of technical faculty and staff has come to the forefront of reform efforts in a field historically dominated by letters and sciences, and how these experts negotiate the resistance they face along the way, are important in evaluating how expertise is constructed and deployed in reform projects within higher education. In addition, it provides new evidence about how incumbents in organizational fields resolve instability and institutional change. My empirical topic also provides a new perspective from which to evaluate the shifting institutional structures of the 21st century American university.

To accomplish these objectives my dissertation begins with a content analysis of higher education trade publications (Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, etc) using machine assisted topic modeling techniques to analyze shifts in discourse about online course delivery during the internet era. To further analyze these changes, a second substantive section builds on primary observations and in depth qualitative interview data from two of the most significant academic sites for this reform movement: Cambridge (MIT, Harvard, and edX), and the Bay Area (Stanford, Berkeley, Coursera and Udacity). In so doing I analyze the parallel migration of a community of practice (modern academic computer scientists) and a mode of organization (MOOC based online course delivery) from the periphery of a field to its core.

Research Experience

My dissertation is an example of a long standing academic interest in the politics of higher education around the world. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College I wrote a thesis on the role of universities, and university students, in a proto-democracy movement in Eritrea in 2001. Prior to attending Berkeley I served as the Eastern European student outreach coordinator for DIA (a student civil society NGO based in Budapest), a research consultant for Action Without Borders/ in Tanzania and Kenya, and a Peace Corps Youth and Community Development Volunteer in Jordan.

In graduate school, I expanded this interest with a qualifying paper that analyzed the relationship between East African universities and state formation in the early postcolonial period. For my dissertation I have built on many of these insights by turning my attention to the field of contemporary US higher education, focusing on the advent of online higher education efforts at elite American universities. While at Berkeley I have also contributed to a number of large scale research projects. As a graduate student researcher on the African Alumni Project, an effort to analyze and engage past African graduates of US universities sponsored by the MasterCard Foundation, I designed an international tracer study which utilized survey research and in person interview techniques. I am also currently the coordinator of text analysis programs at the D-Lab which facilitates the use of computer assisted text analysis methods among social science domain experts in the Berkeley community.

Future Projects

In addition to a number of writing projects associated with my dissertation, I am engaged in a other strands of research. The first is a project which seeks to map the role of universities in structuring entry points to the field of political power in the US. This work is inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of higher education and the field of power in France, The State Nobility, which depicts a steep hierarchy with a single center of power at the Grand Ecoles in Paris. My project will build on an original data set of higher educational biographies of elected representatives at the state and federal level in the US to identify when and how universities enable and inhibit the achievement of local and national political office. In addition, I am pursuing a project which would use computer assisted text analysis techniques to uncover trends in admissions essays to a major American university.

Academic CV


2017     Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley, Sociology (expected)
2013     M.A. University of California at Berkeley, Sociology
2002     B.A. Dartmouth College, Sociology (with Honors)


Stevens, Mitchell and Ben Gebre-Medhin. 2016. "Association, Service, Market: Higher Education in American Political Development". Annual Review of Sociology 42:121-142

Fellowships and Awards

2014: NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation
2013: Fall Research Grant, Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
2013: Dean’s Normative Time Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley
2012-2013: Chancellor's Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley
2008-2012: Jacob Javits Fellow, United States Department of Education
2007-2008: Chancellor's Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley
2002: Barrett Cup for All Around Excellence, Dartmouth College.
2002: Mecklin Sociology Prize for an Outstanding Honors Thesis, Dartmouth College.
2002: Zora Neale Hurston Award of Excellence in the Social Sciences, Dartmouth College.


Gebre-Medhin, Ben. Reprogramming Higher Education: Elite Universities and Online Courseware. American Educational Research Association. April 11th, 2016. Washington, DC.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. Cost Competition and Technology in Elite Higher Education: Harvard University and the MOOC Movement. National Association of Education (NAEd), Annual Meeting. March 17th, 2016. Washington, DC.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. Why did Harvard Pursue MOOCs? Gardner Seminar on Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. January, 2016. Berkeley, CA.
Stevens, Mitchell, and Ben Gebre-Medhin. Systemic Change in Higher Education. Comparative Sociology Workshop. November 16, 2015. Stanford, CA
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. Reprogramming Higher Education: Elite Universities and Online Courseware. National Association of Education (NAEd), Annual Meeting. October 29th, 2015. Washington, DC.
Stevens, Mitchell, and Ben Gebre-Medhin. Systemic Change in Higher Education. Gardner Seminar on Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. September 15th, 2014. Berkeley, CA.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. A Comparative Organizational Sociology of MOOCs. Vice-Provost of Online Learning Seminar Series, Stanford University. October 8th, 2014, Stanford, CA.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. The Framing of Online Course Delivery in Field of Higher Education, 1997-2013. American Sociological Association Annual Meeting. August 2014. San Francisco, CA.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. The Framing of Online Course Delivery in Field of Higher Education, 1997-2013 (Invited Session). Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting. February 2014. Baltimore, MD.
Gebre-Medhin, Ben. Contextualizing the MOOC Movement: Claims and Early Data. Tufts University. November 2013. Medford, MA.


In addition to a longstanding commitment to research focusing on higher education, I have invested a great deal of time and energy helping young people to realize their vision of a more just and humane world. In the classroom, I try to build on my experiences around the world to orient my pedagogical approach. I believe learning is most effective and transformational when students can find ways to connect their life experiences to social theory and research. As a teacher, I work to set high expectations while creating classroom experiences that facilitate motivational connections wherever possible.

While at Berkeley I have had an opportunity to work with a broad array of students from widely diverse backgrounds. I have taught a large number of international and first generation community college transfer students in the Education (An Introduction to the Research University), undergraduates in the Sociology Department (Introduction to Sociology), and graduate students in the School of Information (Information in Society). While each group of students has been unique, my approach of providing significant academic challenges and designing multiple points of entry into the substantive subject matter has energized my classrooms.