Nigeria’s first woman to bag a PhD, first female Professor,and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics
The first female Vice-Chancellor in Nigeria, Grace Awani Alele-Williams (OFR) created many academic histories and had lived virtually all her life contributing so much to the development of the education sector in Nigeria. She introduced several educational programmes some of which are still in use today. She survived the challenges of the patriarchal environment, stood her ground in a position no woman had ever been, and made a mark.
Grace Awani was born on December 16, 1932, in Warri, present day Delta State. She was a pampered last child of five children, and started school later than her contemporaries. Her early childhood was a mixed grill of poor health, moments of sorrow, longings for friends away in school, and the protection of a family at home. As a child, she fell sick often and coughed a lot. There were many arguments in her case when she was asked to wear a black dress. Her movement through primary school and the examples of her older siblings, especially Lydia, John, and Christian, influenced Grace tremendously. With Lydia, she learnt needlework stitches, knitting, and singing. John was always there to assist before she took the entrance examination to Queen’s College, Lagos. With Christian, it was Grace’s greatest desire to try to do everything he was involved in. As the older siblings were away in school, she was very attached to her mother, and the latter monitored her very closely – her everyday activities, from work in the school to work at home. Grace’smother devoted the rest of her life to educating her five children after her husband, Eyemughone Abraham Awani, had passed away. Her educational background and her activities in business made her sufficiently comfortable to educate all her children. Living as she did in Warri, which was a provincial centre, gave her opportunities to appreciate the importance of education and the opportunities to plan and build for her children. Her experience as a community leader and a dedicated member of her church enabled her to assist and promote education and industry for all those she came in contact with.
Grace enrolled as a pupil of the Roman Catholic Mission School along Warri-Sapele Road close to Christmas in 1939. Her early impression of the Reverend Sisters who taught her was that they were aliens from another planet. When she was ten, she had already attended three schools: the Roman Catholic Mission School, the Church Missionary Society School, Warri, and Government School, Warri.
Her mother moved her rapidly through the schools so she could receive the best in primary education. She did not want Grace to become so steeped in the Roman Catholic religion since she was a committed protestant. It was always a great joy for children during Grace’s time to gain admission into Government Colleges, especially in Lagos. She was eventually admitted into Queen’s College, Lagos, after passing the entrance examination and interview.
For her, it was a huge moment of joy and in many respects, comparable to going to Europe for further studies in the 1960s. Most of the girls in secondary schools in Nigeria at the time were in Lagos – CMS Girls’ School, Methodist Girls’ School, and Queen’s College. Most of her classmates at Government Primary School, Warri, were among the first set of students of Government College, Warri. Others were admitted into Government College, Ibadan and King’s College, Lagos. It was her first experience away from home. The first day she arrived at school, a senior girl took charge and let her know she had ‘big’ sisters in the school. These seniors initiated the fresh students gradually into a new lifestyle – food, play, time schedules and so on.
Grace was in the boarding school at Queen’s College, and like other boarders, was allowed to go home only once a year. The school’s rules were fairly flexible in that the students had some measure of freedom in the school. There were few but very dedicated teachers, and Grace and her mates were not just taught to pass examinations but to know about the world as well. ‘Day Girls’ smuggled newspapers into the school to keep the students abreast of information especially regarding World War II. The students often entertained themselves with books, church activities, and sports. There were just two houses in Queen’s College: Red House and Blue House. The girls had to put blankets on wooden beds as they had no mattresses until 1948. Students’ population cut across different parts of Nigeria. Some teachers were Nigerians, while other teachers and the principal were from Oxford or Cambridge. Amongst her tutors were Mrs. Koja, a Mathematics teacher, Lady Ademola (a friend of her mother), Dr. Alice Whitaker, Miss Hutchinson.
Initially, the school only took twenty-four girls a year from across the country. In 1945, the number rose to forty-six and it expanded to a point when the school became overpopulated. There were no enough spaces in the wooden houses. Twentyone of the new intakes including Grace were thereafter taken to Idi-Oro, around Yaba, and it was from there they went to school every day. They had breakfast by six in the morning and boarded a bus to Tinubu Square. From there, they walked a long distance in twos to Queen’s College. Towards the end of the term, they got tired of the trek and became a bit stubborn. The matron reported the obstinate students, and Grace Awani was mentioned more than any other student. It made her feel very sad because the matron was a classmate of her mother and they were well-known to each other. Subsequently, she got the scolding of her life.
At age 18, Grace gained admission into the University College, Ibadan (UCI). She was a part of the second set of students at the college, and amongst her mates were many Nigerians who later rose to prominence – Bola Ige, Chinua Achebe, Akin Mabogunje and so on. Just a year ahead of her was J.F.
Ade Ajayi, who later became a prominent historian and university administrator. There were about four hundred students in the university college at the time, and only ten of them were women. For Grace, the university offered her the freedom that she desired. However, she knew she had entered a new culture and it was clear from the aspirations and actions of people around that she had been given a distinct honour to be an undergraduate. Thus, her idea of freedom came with responsibility. At UCI, she witnessed for the very first time what politics was like in society – student unionism, electioneering campaigns, etc. Students had to vote for people who went into students’ administration. She associated herself with the Dynamic Political Party, while and some of her friends were in the Progressive Political Party. As a student of Mathematics, however, politics was only of secondary interest to her.
She chose to study Mathematics because she liked the subject. Her mother was always pleased with her work and interest in Mathematics. Back in her high school days, she had a cousin, Ayo Dakolo, who attended King’s College. Whenever he visited her house, there was much fun in the house. He had a small monkey as a pet and was everything a young person wanted in a ‘big brother’. He would find out what Grace was studying and then they would go into Geometry and other areas. He emphasized the essence of writing a proof when every statement had to be buttressed with a reason. Studying Mathematics was great fun and occupied her mind so much that she didn’t have much time for leisure. That was the life she led at UCI.
Consolidating the Foundations Grace always wanted to be a teacher, and her first work experience was at the Queen’s School, Ede, in the present day Osun State. It was her time to give back what she enjoyed from the Queen’s College, Lagos. Working with other young women from Britain who taught Arts and Science subjects, Nigerian women who taught Home Economics, Religious knowledge and Physical Education, she and her colleagues managed to produce a large cadre of girls who subsequently became leading professionals in various sectors of the Nigerian society. Because of her interest in Mathematics, teaching, and girls’ education, she introduced Additional Mathematics as extra work and thus fired up her students’ enthusiasm and interest to work towards higher education and professionalism. She worked at Ede for three years, 1954 – 1957, before obtaining a government grant to attend the University of Vermont, Burlington, as a postgraduate student in education. While at Vermont, she also worked as a Graduate Assistant in Mathematics. The Faculties of Education and Science showed significant interest in. her work at Vermont. In education, Grace covered basic undergraduate and postgraduate courses and also worked with part-time postgraduate students who were themselves, teachers and administrators. Her work neatly dovetailed into the upsurge in curriculum improvement in Mathematics and Science, which resulted from the failed attempt to launch space travel by the US in 1957.
She undertook a varied but well-integrated programme of teaching Mathematics at the various levels of education acquisition. With her experience, she started to question the education system in Nigeria and aimed to achieve beyond the Master’s degree so as to be better equipped to introduce the changes she desired. Grace soon had the opportunity to attend the University of Chicago where she received a fellowship that enabled her work in the area of Comparative Education under Dr. C. Arnold Anderson. Shortly after she commenced her Ph.D. in 1960, she commenced teaching in a few colleges in Chicago until she completed her doctorate programme in 1962. The period reinforced her knowledge of education in the British colonies and offered her exciting opportunities to continue to teach Mathematics, and research in Mathematics Education. In promoting the teaching of what was then described as the ‘new Mathematics’, she experimented with four secondary schools and six elementary schools. With each school, a controlled experiment was initiated from class one, with a road map that advanced the program one year at a time, until the fifth and sixth years respectively. The results in terms of impact on pupils’ and students’ understanding of the subject were largely and positively unprecedented. Grace returned to Nigeria from the United States with a good understanding of what she wanted to achieve in Mathematics Education in the country. She also returned to Nigeria with a changed status. She met Babatunde Williams, who had just completed his Ph.D., in the United States of America. After four years of friendship and courtship, they married in 1963 and subsequently had five children.
Grace’s university career in Nigeria began at the University of Ibadan, where she was a post-doctoral research fellow between 1963 and 1965, and continued when she moved to the University of Lagos. She advanced her experiment of Mathematics Education, the first circle of which lasted for six years. The second cycle involved a more direct government / administrative intervention and made a huge impact
on the system.
At the Institute of Education, University of Lagos, she was involved with the Post Graduate Diploma in Education course, which was only for students of Mathematics. There was also the Associateship Programme, which offered exciting new work in Foundations of Education for post-Grade II experienced teachers. She launched into work in specific areas, which all involved changing attitudes to teaching and helping young teachers re-examine what, how and why they were involved in teaching as well as the impact they would make on young minds. Her work inspired such critical re-evaluation of aspirations and practice such that not a few of the teachers she t rained worked themselves into higher education, policy-making positions, or supervision. During the mass retrenchment by Murtala-Obasanjo administration in 1975, Grace’s husband, a professor at the University of Lagos, was asked to leave the university and it meant that the whole family had to quit the residential apartment they were occupying on campus at the time.
Knowing how much that would affect the comfort of her family (including her husband and their five children) at the time, she wrote a petition that she be allowed to keep the accommodation. since she had equally been in the university system for a long while. At the time, she was on the verge of becoming the Director of the Institute of Education. Her petition was denied and the case was taken to the Council. She won the case against the administration and it was a landmark achievement because it led to the ‘point system’ that made it possible for a man’s wife, after attaining the required level to retain accommodation. She was an associate professor and had been in the university for many years. If she had not stood her ground, maybe women in the university would not have been given that status at the time.
Grace Awani Alele-Williams was the Director of the Institute of Education, University of Lagos, from 1975 to 1985. She introduced early childhood education under the auspices of HOMEP, an educational association that was established in 1975. The introduction of the early childhood education course was prompted by the realization that Lagos, being such a large city, had a pressing need to give children early exposure to some formal education. Initially, the programme offered children a platform for craft work and socialization. Gradually, however, it began to assume a slightly academic outlook.
Grace had a couple of Nigerian and American assistants on the programme. With the support of some of her colleagues, she organized an international conference in 1985 to explore how the girl-child could be given more opportunities through Science, Mathematics, and Education. The period coincided with her appointment as the ViceChancellor of the University of Benin. The conference was an eye-opener for many women regarding the vast possibilities that awaited educated female children in a patriarchal society. As Director of the Institute of Education, Grace also introduced refresher courses for holders of the Grade II teacher certificate. The certificate they received at the end of the training was the equivalent of an associateship certificate, a professional certificate in education.
The programme was very beneficial to the teachers because of the simplicity of its design and structure, and most of them were promoted upon completion of the courses. In addition to her academic work at the University of Lagos, she was a housemistress for several years and managed issues of accommodation, sustenance, relationships, etc., of several hundreds of students during her tenure. She was at the University of Lagos for over two decades before her appointment by government asVice-Chancellor of the University of Benin. Vice-Chancellor, the University of Benin The military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida offered Grace Alele-Williams the opportunity to hold an office, which had hitherto been the exclusive preserve of men, the ViceChancellor of a university.
Undoubtedly, this was an appointment based on the merits of an accomplished academic and administrator. The then Minister of Education, Professor Jubril Aminu, relayed the news to her. It was an opportunity for her to show that women too could attain powerful positions and make a success of it. Her experience in the academic field for two decades was a guide, to not only make the University of Benin academically great, but also to live up to the confidence placed on her. She started her appointment as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin in 1985 as the first woman in Africa to be in such position. She knew she must not fail because that would discourage the spirit and enthusiasm of other women. Several reactions greeted her appointment. There were malicious attacks from the public on her ability and capacity to administer the institution. There was much opposition and criticism with regard to her administrative policies, from both the students and the staff. However, the uproar was a blessing in disguise. It gave her more recognition and simultaneously served a cheap way of having publicity because it made many women to realize the enormous potentials they have in them. Early in her administration, she decided she was going to ignore some of the criticisms because many of them were borne out of misinformation and mischief.
When she assumed office, she enquired about the exact financial capacity of the Benin University. For instance, she enquired about how many houses were hired in town, who occupied them and why university resources were not being used to improve accommodation facilities. If students demonstrated when there was insufficient water supply, she sought for a simple explanation from whoever was responsible for why things went wrong. The inquisitions raised eyebrows in many quarters. She pushed people’s negative comments and criticism aside as she worked hard to ensure that the university resources were used to the best advantage of the students. She believed it was the only way good teaching and learning could take place. The society, at that time, was still overwhelmingly patriarchal and not used to the idea of a woman making decisions and calling the shots. There were also grievances from those who thought she had been brought from Lagos, and they would rather have someone from Uniben do the job.
When Grace Alele-Williams became Vice-Chancellor, the University of Benin lacked the facilities that some other universities enjoyed. The student population was increasing, yet there were only a few buildings. Prior to her assumption of office, the construction of the buildings of the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine had been approved and the then Executive President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari had actually laid the foundations, but the projects were unattended to. Work on these sites commenced during her tenure, even though the Council said there was no enough money. Some Benin indigenes later helped with funds. With the support of Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, she was able to access funds from the government and the private sector and was also able to bargain successfully with the contractors.
Chief Gabriel Igbinedion gave her the first one million naira, which was used to start work on the Faculty of Law site. She wanted the Law Faculty named after him but did not have her way in that regard. The idea of installing modern computer facilities at that time was not widespread in Nigeria, but Professor Grace Alele-Williams introduced it into the University of Benin. She changed all the existing PCs, and it was an uphill task convincing everybody that the PCs were preferable to the few huge mainframe computers in place. Every faculty had personal computers with which to effectively accomplish their tasks. In 1990, the university celebrated twenty years of existence, and the most significant activity used to mark the event was the collection of the data of every student and staff who had passed through the university, across all faculties and departments. It was a huge success in terms of record keeping. Grace left an indelible mark on Benin. She was able to effect positive changes in the academic programmes, introduced diploma programmes in the Faculties of Science and Medicine, and degree courses in Computer Science. She also put in place structures that allowed the university to generate ten percent of its required funds, which was unprecedented at the time. She left office in 1991. In May 1993, Grace was invited by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) to chair the NUC/World Bank US$120 million loan for the improvement of the twenty-five Nigerian federal universities. She worked on the project for fourteen months, making a contribution the significantly enhanced the development of Nigerian universities.
Grace had been involved with the World Organization for Women in Science, which started in 1988. The first major meeting of the organisation was in Cairo in 1993. She had already, during her tenure as Vice-Chancellor, ensured that women scientists in Nigeria were registered as members of this organization. During the 1993 meeting, Nigeria had the greatest number of women scientists in attendance.
Grace was also involved with another NGO that borne out of the realization that, though government policies rarely discriminated between the sexes, societal practices do.
In 1993, a meeting of some female ministers of education and female vice-chancellors on the African continent held in Zimbabwe. Grace was a part of the forum which deliberated on how to set up an international NGO that would give due attention to these issues. Following their deliberations, the Forum of African Women Educationists (FAWE) was created with Grace as the pioneer President. FAWE became involved in researches that did not only motivate girls to go to school, but also remain in school. It gave out prizes and scholarships to young women to go abroad for postgraduate studies. Grace and her colleagues in FAWE were able to discard to a considerable extent, the belief that sending a girl-child to school amounts to a waste of resources. At the end of her tenure, she was succeeded as President of FAWE by Professor Jadesola Akande, but still takes considerable interest in women’s education and human rights.
Grace has also participated actively in the New Nigeria Foundation, an NGO that works with other international governments and donor agencies on schemes that seek to alleviate poverty, improve farming and introduce developmental activities. Some of the projects of this organisation in agriculture are geared towards making foodstuff reach the masses at affordable prices. The group is also involved in health projects, affecting and improving health conditions in various states of the federation, especially in rural communities. Achievements and Honours Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams was the first Nigerian woman to earn a doctorate degree (Ph.D. Mathematics) in 1963. She was a consultant to UNESCO and Institute of International Education Planning from 1963 to 1973. She also served as Vice President and member of the Executive Board of The Third World Organization for Women in Science (TWOWS). She was Chairwoman of the African Mathematical Union Commission for Women in Mathematics (AMUCWMA). In 1976, she became a Professor of Mathematics, being the first Nigerian woman to become a Mathematics professor.
She also became the first African woman to be appointed Vice-Chancellor of a university in 1985. She is a Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria and of the Nigerian Academy of Education; Merit Award Winner of Bendel State in Nigeria. She won the Hallmark of Labour Role Model Award on March 7, 2002. She is a member of the governing council of the Institute of Education of UNESCO, a consultant to UNESCO and the Institute of International Education Planning. She is also a member of Africa Mathematics Programme at Newton Massachusetts, USA. She has been a vice -president of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education.
Between 1973 and 1979, Grace was Chairman of the Curriculum Review Committee of the former Bendel State. From 1979 to 1985, she served variously as Chairman of the Lagos State Curriculum Review Committee and Lagos State Examinations Boards. She was a member of the Federal Government’s Vision 2010 Committee In 1987, she was honoured with the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) by the Nigerian government; she later received the honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR). She was also a recipient of the Nigerian Centenary Award in February 2014. Professor Grace Alele-Williams has given keynote lectures in several parts of the world and has published many papers showing commitment to the education of the girl-child, women in Mathematics, gender equality, and the heritage of family values, among others. She is a director of many corporate and notable organisations.