Ben Gebre-Medhin

Assistant Professor of Sociology - Mount Holyoke College


I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College. I recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Stanford University having earned a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley in 2018. I’ve spent much of the last two decades exploring the relationship between universities - the students and faculty which inhabit them - and political and social development around the world. My graduate work has been supported by the US Department of Education (Javits Fellowship) and the National Academy of Education (NAEd/Spencer Foundation). My 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 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. I was chosen as a D-Lab Founding Data Science Fellow for my work building a vibrant learning community focused on computational text analysis (CTA) and serving as the instructional lead for the CTA program for three years.

My manuscript in progress, titled Reengineering the American Elite: Tradition, Technology, and Transformation in Higher Education, received an Advance Contract from the University of Chicago Press. The project 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, and Harvard produced and responded to the MOOC movement of 2012. Using 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, is reshaping the culture of elite higher education.

Originally from Cambridge, MA, I spent much of the decade before 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.


Book Project

I am working to finalize a manuscript entitled: Reengineering the American Elite: Tradition, Technology, and Transformation in Higher Education (advance contract, University of Chicago Press). The project extends the work of my dissertation and focuses on the process by which universities have already embraced significant cultural transformation as they compete over digital technologies and the professionals who produce them.


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, 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.

Ongoing Projects

I currently have two advanced research projects nearing completion. The first focuses on the reconfiguration of the employment contract as it relates to the culture of lifelong learning across contemporary industry. Using in-depth interviews from a sample of 60 California residents who took free online courses on Stanford's platform, it argues that while MOOCs extend and institutionalize the ongoing shift toward a paradigm of employability in the tech sector, these new requirements are having more amorphous and less useful impacts on those workers employed in traditional organizations. The second project leverages computational text analysis techniques to uncover patterns in a unique corpus of nearly one million application essays to a large state university system.

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.

Academic CV

Please contact me for a current CV.


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. I have found that learners from diverse backgrounds respond well to a teaching and mentoring philosophy which combines: 1) positive personal feedback which affirms the potential in each individual and 2) public presentations which leverage peer evaluation to set and maintain high collective standards.

While at Berkeley I have had an opportunity to work with a broad array of students from widely diverse backgrounds. I served for three years as the instructional lead for the Computational Text Analysis program at the D-Lab, a just-in-time methods accelerator for the social sciences and humanities at Berkeley where I designed and delivered interactive learning materials in Python using Jupyter Notebooks. I have also 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.