Religious studies chair, mentor dies


Linda Penkower, chair of the University’s religious studies department, died Tuesday night. Penkower was known as a pillar of support in the department. (Photo via University of Pittsburgh)

By John Hamilton | Managing Editor

Linda Penkower — the chair of the University’s religious studies department known for supporting students and faculty — died Tuesday night, the department’s undergraduate director said in an email.

In the email, which was addressed to religious studies majors and recent graduates, professor Rachel Kranson said Penkower had been fighting cancer for several years.

“She engaged in this struggle while working tirelessly for the religious studies department, for her colleagues, and for her students,” Kranson wrote.

The department also shared the news on Facebook, sending condolences to her friends and family.

We are sorry to have to share the news of the death of our department chair, beloved colleague, dedicated and inspiring teacher, and noted scholar of early Chinese Buddhism, Linda Penkower,” the post read.

Penkower mainly taught courses related to religion in Asia, according to her faculty bio. She spent nine years living in Japan and one in China and has published numerous research papers on Buddhism. She earned her PhD from Columbia University in 1993. She’s received numerous awards and grants — including two Fulbright-Hays faculty research fellowships.

Rebecca Denova, a senior lecturer in the department, said Penkower always had the department’s best interests in mind.

“She always went to bat for everyone in the department all the time,” she said. “It’s really quite a loss.”

Responding to the department’s Facebook post, Jason von Ehrenkrook, now an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Massachusetts-Boston, said Penkower was a guide and mentor when he was a lecturer at Pitt from 2010 to 2014.

“She was enormously supportive while I was at Pitt, and even after I left,” he said. “My deepest condolences to my former colleagues and to her many friends and family.”

Cooper Harriss, also commenting on the department’s post, expressed his appreciation of the kindness and support Penkower provided him during his time as a postdoctoral fellow at Pitt from 2012 to 2013.

“She was good and excellent in ways that few can be at the same time,” Harriss wrote. “My condolences to the department, her friends, and her family.”

One of Penkower’s students, Lianghao Lu — a doctoral candidate in the department — said Penkower was a “dedicated professor and advisor” who provided her with valuable guidance, carefully reading all her work and offering detailed feedback.

“This is the way she treats all her students,” Lu said in an email Tuesday night. “She will always be my mentor.”


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