First Female Vice Chancellor in Nigeria, Grace Alele-Willaims Dies at 89


Ahamefula  Ogbu

Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin and Nigeria’s first female Vice Chancellor, Prof. Grace Alele-Williams, has died in Lagos at the age of 89.

The academic who scored a string of firsts, including being the first female to get a Doctorate Degree in Nigeria was before her demise, a Professor of Mathematics.

The very cerebral Alele-Williams went down in history as the Vice Chancellor who reduced cultism that was very perennial before her appointment to the barest minimum with an attendant peace in the campus. She was appointed Vice Chancellor in 1985.

Although details of her demise and the hospital where it happened are still sketchy, a fellow academic, Hope Eghagha reportedly confirmed the development.

Before her appointment as vice-chancellor, she made history as the first Nigerian woman to obtain a doctorate degree in Mathematics education in 1963, a rare feat in the sixties.

What led to her death is still unclear as of the time of filing this report.

She obtained a master’s degree in mathematics while teaching at Queen’s School, Ede in Osun State in 1957 and her PhD also in Mathematics. She was born on December 16, 1932 in Warri, present day Delta State.

Born Grace Awani Alele; she adopted the Alele-Williams name by which she is now known after her marriage to Babatunde A Williams. She attended Government School, Warri, and Queen’s College, Lagos, graduating in 1949. In that year she entered University College Ibadan, now the University of Ibadan, and graduated with an Honours Degree in Mathematics in 1954. 

At this time, University College Ibadan, was not awarding its own degrees and so the Honours Degree that she received was an external University of London degree. Every summer during her undergraduate studies, Alele returned to her home town of Warri and, starting in 1950, she taught mathematics during the summer vacation at Hussey College, Warri.

After the award of her honours degree in 1954, Alele was appointed as a mathematics teacher at Queen’s School, Ede, Osun State, where she taught from 1954 to 1957.

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 to be cold and also experienced forms of 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 with a dissertation on “Dynamics of Education in the Birth of a New Nation: Case Study Of Nigeria.”

She had been awarded a Master’s Degree in Education in 1959 having taught mathematics as a Graduate Assistant in the Mathematics Department while studying Mathematical Education. A Graduate Fellowship Award allowed her to go to the University of Chicago Illinois later in 1959 to study for a Ph.D. She was awarded her doctorate in March 1963 and she became the first Nigerian woman ever to be awarded a doctorate. After the award of the degree, she returned to Nigeria and spent two years at the University of Ibadan undertaking postdoctoral work as a post-doctoral research fellow in the department and Institute of Education.

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