Born on December 16, 1932, Grace Alele had her early education at Government School, Warri between 1939 and 1949 and Queens College, Lagos, between 1945 and 1949. She then moved on to the University College (presently University of Ibadan) for her first degree between 1949 and 1954. She was amongst the second set at the university and was also one out of the 10 girls in that set. For the next three years, she taught Mathematics at Queen’s School, Ede, Osun State.
Dissatisfied with her situation at Queen’s School, Alele managed to obtain financial assistance from the Nigerian Head of Service to attend the University of Vermont as a graduate assistant with the goal of becoming a secondary school teacher. She found the weather in Vermont cold and also experienced segregation in the rural setting. Soon, however, Sputnik shifted America’s attention to the importance of mathematics and education, and Alele had the opportunity to go to the University of Chicago, Columbia, or Harvard. She chose the University of Chicago, and in 1963 obtained her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education, thus becoming the first Nigerian woman to earn a Ph.D. Her dissertation was based on “Dynamics of Education in the Birth of a New Nation: Case Study Of Nigeria.”
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. Highlights included writing texts and correspondence courses covering basic concepts in mathematics, working in concert with leading mathematicians and educators.
She got married to her husband, Professor Babatunde Williams in 1963. She started working in Ibadan where she was based as a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. She worked with Grade II teachers in a programme popularly referred to as train the trainer. She extended the programme to Lagos and Benin.
In 1965, she joined the University of Lagos and was able to convince the Ministry of Education in Lagos about the programme. By then she was working with about 100 teachers who were expected to go back to their respective schools to train their own teachers. The programme went beyond Nigeria to other African countries like Kenya and Uganda though later she concentrated the programme on West Africa.
The execution of her plans was not without hitches here and there. For example, the concept she developed was to go beyond training the teachers to changing the mathematics curricula in Nigeria. This meant that the textbooks being used would have to be re-written. However, the three major publishing companies in Nigeria were not taken in by the idea since, according to them; they had invested so much capital in re-writing their mathematics textbooks.
Even though the textbook, ‘Modern Mathematics’ was eventually published, she was to face another obstacle. The then Minister of Education under General Obasanjo’s regime, Ahmadu Alli announced the ban of the textbook in schools. His reason was that the textbook confused teachers and students.
As a lecturer at the University of Lagos, she directed affairs at the university’s Institute of Education where she introduced innovative non degree programmes to benefit teachers. Many of the certificate recipients were older women working as elementary school teachers. In 1974, she became the university’s first female professor of Mathematics Education.
In 1985, under the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, she was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin. However; she had the option of turning down the offer since as of then there was no woman VC for her to learn the ropes from. But she accepted the position thereby becoming the first female Vice Chancellor of any African university.
In an interview she granted about a decade ago, she said this about her appointment: ‘The excitement I felt on receiving the news from Professor Jibril Aminu (the then Minister of Education) had more to do with seeing it in terms of opening up the field for women than anything else’. The appointment, for her was an opportunity to show that women can handle such top positions and also deliver on them. She was also aware of the high expectations of the womenfolk and was therefore not prepared to fail.
Though many people applauded her appointment, some others were not happy and meanings were read into every action she took as the VC perhaps because she was a woman and some people felt she had invaded their turf. She was called different names and some saw her as an outsider imposed on them by the military junta while others simply said she was unqualified for the job.
All these accusations did not weigh her down to the point of not doing her duty. Her credentials were enough to tell everyone, including her accusers that she was qualified for the job but she was not going to let only her credentials speak for her. She went to work. By the end of her second term, the voices accusing her had been silenced. The physical structures built during her administration spoke for her. They included the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge, Bursary and Administration Block, Faculty of Law and College of Medical Sciences.
At the end of her second tenure in 1991, she did not retire but returned to the University of Lagos. She later became a director in Chevron Nigeria and also headed a committee at the Nigerian University Commission. Professor Alele-Williams was a member of the National Planning Commission. Throughout these periods, she continued with her research and went on presenting papers and her profile continued to rise.
This 81-year-old mother of five children and grandmother of nine is not resting but continues to seek avenues through which women can be educated on various subjects. Her drive stemed from her belief that one cannot live a fulfilled life unless you add to someone else’s joy, comfort and security.
Whereas others would have been satisfied being just average, Professor Grace Alele-Williams decided that the very top was for her and she went about working hard to achieve just that and in doing that became a trailblazer.
Professor Alele-Williams served in various committees and boards. She had made useful contributions in the development of education in Nigeria. Alele-Williams was a consultant to UNESCO and Institute of International Education Planning for a decade (1963–73).
She was chairman of the curriculum review committee, former Bendel State, 1973-1979. From 1979-1985, she served as chairman of the Lagos State Curriculum Review Committee and Lagos State Examination Board.
After serving as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin, she joined the board of directors of Chevron-Texaco Nigeria.
She was a member of the African Mathematics Programme in Newton, Massachusetts, United States.
She was also Vice-President of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education and later president of the Nigerian chapter. Alele-Williams has published a book entitled Modern Mathematics Handbook for Teachers and numerous articles in national and international academic journals.
Alele-Williams 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. 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.
She has been elected as a Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria and the Nigerian Academy of Education. Alele-Williams was also on the Vision 2010 committee. A consummate author on Mathematics, she is a director of Chevron Nigeria Limited.
Professor Alele-Williams has won many awards. Among her honours include Order of the Niger 1987, Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria and of the Nigerian Academy of Education; Merit Award Winner of Bendel State in Nigeria; and Regional Vice President for Africa of the Third World Organization for Women in Science” (Science in Africa: Women Leading from Strength AAAS, Washington, 1993, It may be added that Professor Williams is also the Chairwoman of AMUCWMA, the African Mathematical Union Commission for Women in Mathematics.
Professor Grace Alele Williams’ marriage to her late husband, Professor Babatunde Williams was blessed with five children and nine grandchildren.
With Ben Bruce at Distinguished Award Conferment on Aginighan by the National Association of Ijaw Female Student