fred harris

...To Support Faculty

Peggy and Eric Johnson endow a College of Engineering faculty position to honor Professor Emeritus *fred harris.

By Lisa Haney

January 22, 2021

The donors: Peggy Johnson (’85, B.S. electrical and computer engineering) and Eric Johnson
(’86, M.S. electrical and computer engineering)
The gift: $3.1 million cash
The purpose: Creates the fred harris* Chair in Digital Signal Processing (DSP), named after harris, a professor emeritus who taught electrical and computer engineering at SDSU for more than 50 years. The gift will fund a worldwide search and hiring of a prominent DSP expert, as well as their educational and research activities. It is one of only five endowed College of Engineering faculty positions and the largest cash gift in the college’s history.
About the Johnsons: They met at SDSU and have been married for more than 30 years. Peggy is CEO of Magic Leap, a wearable spatial computers company, and a former executive at Microsoft and Qualcomm. Business Insider named her the No. 1 Most Powerful Female Engineer of 2017. Eric was the founder and CEO of the successful start-up Tourmaline Networks and is now an angel investor in tech start-ups. 

Why they wanted to give back: Most of us — if we were lucky — had a professor who profoundly influenced us. For Eric, that professor was harris. “He was very good at making very difficult concepts understandable,” Eric says. Tasked with designing an aspect of satellite communications at his first job, Eric was able to take a theory harris taught him and easily apply it. “Within six months we had a satellite communication system up and running,” he says. 
Peggy never had harris in class. “But Eric never stopped talking about him,” she says. “He still talks about how something fred taught him has stuck in his head. Those are the teachers that we need to celebrate.”
“The impact that San Diego State has had on both of our lives — we can’t overstate it,” Peggy says. A chance visit to the College of Engineering building changed the course of her education and career. As a first-year business student, she was delivering mail as part of the campus job she had to help pay for her education. Two women in the office — visibly excited to see a female student — asked if she was there to talk about engineering, Peggy says. “No one had ever said, ‘What about engineering’ to me,” she says. “Not my high school counselor, not my math teacher.” The next day she changed her major. “Even though there were very few women at the time it was a very welcoming department,” she says.
Peggy went on to become not only a top engineer but a business leader. “Everything I learned in engineering from a problem-solving perspective helps even today to solve business problems,” she says. “From Qualcomm to Microsoft — and even today at Magic Leap — I’ve used that cognitive ability.”
It’s that solid engineering foundation that formed the basis of their success that the Johnsons hope the fred harris Chair will continue to bring to future students. “I believe engineers are a direct path of making life easier and better for everyone,” Eric says. “I view this gift as a way of promoting more talented engineers from San Diego State.”

*=intentionally lowercase

Five Things to Know About ... *fred harris:

fred harris

fred harris. Photograph by Sandy Huffaker.

1. He changed the spelling of his name to all lowercase in 1967 so people remember it.

2. He has more than 400 ties with cartoon characters that he wears to keep his students guessing.

3. His motto is: “If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing it right.”

4. Other scholars have cited his seminal 1978 paper, “On the use of Windows for Harmonic Analysis with the Discrete Fourier Transform,” more than 8,000 times.

5. The chair in his honor is “the nicest compliment anyone’s ever given me,” he says.

“I would like to thank Peggy and Eric Johnson for this truly transformational gift that recognizes the legacy of fred harris’ 50+ years of service to the college.” —Eugene Olevsky, Dean of the College of Engineering