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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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SDSU will award honorary degrees to Gen. Merrill Anthony McPeak (left), Peggy L. Johnson, and José Padilla. (SDSU Photo Illustration) SDSU will award honorary degrees to Gen. Merrill Anthony McPeak (left), Peggy L. Johnson, and José Padilla. (SDSU Photo Illustration)

SDSU to Award Three Honorary Degrees

This year’s recipients are standouts in business, the military, and farmworkers’ rights.
By Jeff Ristine

San Diego State University will award honorary degrees during this month’s commencement ceremonies to a role model for women in engineering and technology, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, and a prominent advocate for farmworkers’ rights.


In an annual tradition recognizing service to the university, the San Diego community and the nation, honorary degrees will be conferred upon former Qualcomm and Microsoft executive Peggy L. Johnson and Gen. Merrill Anthony McPeak, who served on the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both awardees are alumni and will be recognized in commencement ceremonies at Viejas Arena.


At SDSU Imperial Valley, the university will honor José Padilla, former executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance.


In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first person to receive an honorary doctoral degree from what was then San Diego State College. The university has awarded 62 more to community leaders and philanthropists, distinguished alumni, national legislators, international dignitaries and others. This year’s awards will bring the total to 66.


About the 2023 awardees:


Peggy Johnson (Honorary Doctor of Science) received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from SDSU in 1985. 


After working as an engineer at General Electric’s military electronics division, Johnson joined San Diego-based Qualcomm in 1989 as a software engineer. She remained at Qualcomm for 24 years in leadership positions that included president of global markets and head of Qualcomm Labs, the company’s incubator for new businesses and products. In August 2001 she was named president of Qualcomm Internet Services at what was then the dawn of the mobile phone revolution. She became executive vice president of business development for Microsoft in 2014 and is now CEO of Florida-based Magic Leap, which manufactures augmented reality devices.


Johnson has served on the SDSU National Leadership Council and the Aztec Club. She and her husband, Eric, have contributed to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to support research and an endowed professorship. Committed to the training and creation of opportunities for women, she has spoken frequently to engineering students, especially aspiring female engineers.


Johnson will receive her honorary doctorate at the commencement ceremony for the College of Engineering, to be held Saturday, May 13, at 5:30 p.m. at Viejas Arena.


RELATED: SDSU’s Top 10 Degrees Among 2023 Graduates


Gen. Merrill A. McPeak (Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters) received a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from San Diego State College, where he was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program. He entered active duty after graduation in 1957 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.


McPeak’s military career spanned 37 years and included a year in Vietnam, where he served as a combat pilot and operations commander, among other positions. He was commander of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing in NATO, February 1980-June 1981. He was promoted to general in August 1988 and was named chief of staff for the air force in October 1990. He retired as a four-star general in October 1994; his many decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.


In 2020, McPeak and his wife, Elynor McPeak, whom he met in the forensics program at SDSC, created two endowed scholarships in Elynor McPeak’s name: for economics excellence at the College of Arts and Letters, and for Aztecs forensics excellence at the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. He was the recipient of the SDSU Alumni Association’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.


McPeak will receive his honorary doctorate at the commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Letters, to be held Friday, May 12, at 1 p.m. at Viejas Arena.


José Padilla (Honorary Doctor of Laws), led the nonprofit law firm California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) as its executive director for 38 years. The firm provides free legal services to low-income residents of rural counties and is known particularly for its advocacy for agricultural workers. 


Padilla is the grandson of farmworkers from Imperial Valley and was born and raised in Brawley. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanford University and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.


During his time at CRLA, the firm also established programs to advance environmental justice in disadvantaged communities, to address LGBTQ+ issues, and to reduce educational disparities for low-income, immigrant and other vulnerable communities in rural California. In 1981, CRLA drafted the state’s first bilingual education statute to govern the education of migrant children. 


Padilla retired at the end of 2022 when CRLA established a Fellowship Fund in his name to support interns and fellows launching careers in social justice law.


Padilla is a former vice chair of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and former board member of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. 


Padilla’s sister, Irene Salazar, will accept the degree on his behalf at the commencement ceremony for SDSU Imperial Valley, to be held Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m. in the Rollie Carrillo Quad.


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