The challenges are slightly more complex, but Bryan Slinker’s academic career is concluding much like it started: working long hours in pursuit of success.
As an 18-year-old in Parma, Idaho, Slinker would wake up well before sun-up and head to the neighbor’s dairy farm. Over several years spanning high school and college, Slinker became very efficient at milking cows, paying his way through the College of Idaho by milking cows before and after school and doing other chores as a farm hand. Through those undergraduate years, and a D.V.M and PhD at WSU, and decades of experience as a researcher and academic leader, there were many more long days.
Retirement awaits this summer, but Slinker’s days are as packed as ever. He’s accustomed to the volume of work on his desk (or in the barn), but the current challenges are unprecedented.
“The real difference these days is not how long the days are, but how intense the days are,” Slinker said. “Learning a new job as provost is energizing, but you layer COVID-19 on top of it and it’s gotten really intense.”
What keeps Slinker toiling away on behalf of the students, faculty and staff at WSU? He’s fiercely loyal to his crimson and gray, and a hearty believer in the school’s land grant mission.
After a semester at Idaho State University, Slinker missed his girlfriend, now his wife, Kathy. He transferred to the College of Idaho in Caldwell, commuting 20 minutes each way to classes to live at home so he could cover the $2,100 annual tuition with his milking money. These days, Slinker says, it would be virtually impossible to work like that to pay for tuition even at a public school. “During my undergraduate years I think it was luck, hard work, and living in a different era of college affordability,” Slinker said. “The land grant mission is the realistic approach to access now. That’s why that mission is key for me.”
Becoming a Coug
Biology drew Slinker’s interest as an undergrad. He conducted research projects with renowned professor Lyle Stanford at College of Idaho and though he had plenty of experience with animals on the farm, he became interested in the basic biological sciences.
The dual interest in biology and animals drew Slinker to the nearest land grant university that had an excellent veterinary college.
“Forty-five years ago, my choice was WSU or WSU,” Slinker said.
After earning his DVM, Slinker remained in Pullman for two more years and earned his PhD in veterinary sciences in 1982, specializing in cardiovascular physiology. After a post-doctoral appointment at UC San Francisco and six years as a faculty member of the medical school at the University of Vermont, the Slinkers jumped at the chance to return to Pullman when he joined the College of Veterinary Medicine faculty in 1992.
Slinker downplays his accomplishments as an academic, but his work has been cited over 2,000 times. Despite his biological science background, he says he is probably best known among his peers for articles on biostatistics. He spent considerable time as a grad student with Ron Mittelhammer, then and now an economics professor who has had detours as a WSU school director, dean, and interim provost. He remembers diving deep (for a biologist) into econometrics textbooks and eventually co-authored a textbook of his own on intermediate biomedical statistics.
Taking on leadership roles
Slinker served as the department chair for what is now Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience for 9 years before being named dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. He downplays his role in the success of the College and the University. Slinker credits his upbringing and many trusted mentors and faculty colleagues for helping him develop as an academic leader.
“A lot of faculty invested their time in me as a student, post-doc, and then again as a fellow faculty member,” Slinker said. “It’s part of why I’m so devoted to WSU. The faculty here cared about me and I had mentors that showed me the way. At every step there were critical people who made a difference.”
President Kirk Schulz called upon Slinker to step in as interim provost last fall and his pathway to retirement this summer took a left turn when he agreed to do so. Little did he know what was looming midway through the spring semester.
Back on the farm, early mornings were a time for Slinker to mull over calculus or organic chemistry problems in his head while milking the cows.
“An answer would pop into my brain and I’d run into the parlor and write it down before I forgot it,” Slinker recalled.
Early mornings now call for a trip to The Daily Grind for a quadruple shot of espresso before diving into days filled with emails and Zoom meetings. And though the answers are sometimes uncertain, he beams with pride at the response of WSU students, faculty, and staff during a truly tumultuous time.