By Morenike Taire
ACCOMPLISHED as she was, it was during a dark period for Nigeria’s higher education that Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams was to come into national reckoning. The scourge of secret cults, confraternities and societies had spread within Nigerian universities. Universities in the South were particularly affected and the University of Benin one of the worst hit.
It was to this scenario that Professor Grace was appointed as vice chancellor in 1985. But being appointed the first female vice chancellor of a Nigerian or an African university was barely the issue for Alele-Williams. A task had been set before her at which many other men had failed, and it was on this that she was focused. It was with a combination of courage, ingenuity and strategy that the growing tide of cultism was eventually stemmed in the university, sending ripples of change across institutions of higher learning all over the country.
Born Grace Awani Alele on December 16, 1932 in Warri, now Delta State, Alele-Williams was educated at Queens College, Lagos, University College, Ibadan and the universities of Vermont and Chicago in the United States. She first began to teach at Queens’ School, Ede but was to be, in 1963, the first Nigerian woman to be awarded a doctorate degree anywhere.
Her interest in mathematics education was originally sparked by her stay in the US, which coincided with the Sputnik phenomenon. Working with the African Mathematics Programme in Newton, Massachusetts, under the leadership of MIT professor, Ted Martins, she participated in mathematics workshops held in various African cities from 1963 to 1975.
She returned to Nigeria from Chicago, for postdoctoral work at the University of Ibadan before joining the faculty of the University of Lagos in 1965, where she worked and served in various capacities until 1985.
As Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Lagos, among her honours are those of Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria and of the Nigerian Academy of Education; Merit Award Winner of Bendel State in Nigeria. She remained vice-chancellor in Benin until 1991. Beyond the University of Lagos, Alele-Williams served on a global level in a variety of capacities, with a view to developing and improving educational standards in Africa. Alele-Williams was a member of governing council at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO; Institute of Education, and a consultant to UNESCO and Institute of International Education Planning. For a decade (1963–73) she was a member of the African Mathematics Programme, located in Newton, Massachusetts, United States. She was also vice-president of the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education and later president of the Nigerian chapter.
She has published a book titled Modern Mathematics Handbook for Teachers, and has also served as a member of the African Mathematical Union Commission on Women in Mathematics in Africa, and as Vice-President of the Third World Organization for Women in Science. After serving as the vice-chancellor of the University of Benin, she joined the board of directors of Chevron-Texaco Nigeria. She is also on the board of HIP, an Asset Management Company in Lagos, Nigeria. Alele-Williams occupies a most unique position not only as an academic, intellectual and leader of thought; but also as an activist in spheres including, but not limited to, gender.
Upon the conclusion of her assignment as vice chancellor, Professor Alele-Williams told newsmen: “The excitement I felt on receiving the news from Professor Jubril Aminu (Minister of Education) had more to do with seeing it in terms of opening up the field for women than anything else. I saw it as an opportunity to show that women too could rise up to the occasion. Also, I knew what the weight of the expectations of the women was. They were eager to see how things would go and I was not going to let them down. Mind you, those who appointed me felt I was qualified for it; so it was not just a case of wanting to satisfy the yearnings of the womenfolk. It wasn’t that simplistic.”
Nevertheless, Professor Grace never hid the fact that she had a special interest in women’s education. While spending a decade directing the Institute of Education, she introduced innovative non degree programmes, allowing older women working as elementary school teachers to receive certificates. Alele-Williams has always demonstrated concern for the access of female African students to scientific and technological subjects.
Yet in a 2004 talk on Gender Dignity at Lagos State University, she was quoted as saying: “As long as we are celebrating a woman vice chancellor because she is the first or a woman chief judge because she is the first, then we have not arrived. We look forward to the time when we will have many women in such positions and we will be celebrating so many of them.”
Speaking about Alele-Williams recently at her birthday celebration, foremost broadcaster, Soni Irabor, recalls that she was “a woman that gave Soni Irabor Live (then on AIT) one of the greatest boosts in public acceptance and credibility. I remember asking her how she handled cultists in UNIBEN. Her reply was a firm, curt “I dealt with it!” That statement resonated for weeks in the minds of TV audiences across the country. I also remember how patient she was throughout the three hour drive to AIT Alagbado in Lagos, in the most chaotic traffic experience ever encountered”.
Chaotic traffic experience
On Saturday, November 25, 2017, Alele Williams was conferred with an honorary doctorate degree at the University of Benin; an honour for the service she rendered about 25 years ago when she put the University of Benin on the map as the first university in Nigeria to have a female vice chancellor at a time when female professors were few and far between.
By serving in various committees and boards, Alele-Williams had made useful contributions in the development of education in Nigeria. She was chairman of the curriculum review committee, former Bendel State in 1973-1979, and from 1979-1985, she served as chairman of the Lagos State Curriculum Review Committee and Lagos State Examinations Boards. In 1987 she received the Order of the Niger, and in 1994 gave the Distinguished Annual Lecture at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru.
At every opportunity and even now, Alele-Williams lends herself to counseling women on navigating the institution of marriage. She was herself married with five children to late Babatunde Williams, also a professor. She is a devoted grandmother.