Portico Fall 2021: Lauren Leighty, M.U.D. ’11, Gives in Support of the Degree That Transformed Her Career

For Lauren Leighty, the geographical dichotomy of Taubman College was striking: this preeminent university was in her backyard — but her classmates came from all over the world. 

During a virtual 10-year reunion this spring, it struck her again. “We had classmates Zooming in from Jordan, Dubai, and California,” says Leighty, M.U.D. ’11. “It was great to see everyone and hear what they’ve been up to.”

As a member of Taubman College’s Alumni Council, Leighty is committed to helping alumni stay engaged with the college and each other — which isn’t easy when that globally diverse student body becomes an equally dispersed alumni community. “I think people want to stay connected but lose sight of how to do that. It can be easy to drift,” she says.

Leighty’s post-graduation engagement with the college started with critiquing studio reviews. As principal and campus studio leader of SmithGroup’s Ann Arbor office, Leighty also has hosted students for Spring Break externships and as summer interns. She encourages others who are able to do the same: “Interacting firsthand with students and recent grads makes me feel like I am giving back in a really meaningful way,” she says. 

In addition, Leighty gives to Taubman College’s annual fund, which provides flexible, immediate support for the college’s greatest needs. During the pandemic, student support was at the top of the list — something that Leighty, a former scholarship recipient, appreciates. 
“I benefitted from the generosity of others, so now that I can help others achieve their goals, it’s important to do so,” she says. “It’s my investment in the next generation.”

Her support of the college honors the educational experience that she says “transformed my life and work. My degree changed the conversations I could have with potential employers by opening a whole new world of possibilities.”

Leighty came to Taubman College after a few years of practice as a landscape architect. Drawn to larger projects in her practice, “I appreciated how the M.U.D. program taught me to think across scales. We were looking at the impact of design decisions on individual users of a space, as well as on the environment and the community at a macro scale. That has greatly influenced my approach to my work.”

She was recruited by SmithGroup prior to graduating and joined their campus planning team. While the practice area was new to her, she found that it aligned well with her urban design training — and that she really liked it. So 10 years later, it is still the focus of her work. 

Two of her most memorable projects were leading master plans for the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, her alma mater, and for California State University Chico. The latter received a merit award from the Society for College and University Planning earlier this year. 

At the midpoint of the Cal State Chico project, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history ravaged the area. “Overnight, the objectives of the campus plan changed,” Leighty says. As the university took in displaced residents and helped to coordinate recovery efforts, “it reinforced the importance of an institution within a community and shifted our thinking in terms of the social needs that must be addressed beyond an institution’s academic and research missions.”

That broad-focused mission is one of the things that makes Leighty passionate about campus planning. “I feel stakeholders are thinking long term about the legacy they’re leaving,” Leighty says. “When you consider sustainability and equity, universities tend to be willing to explore ideas that might meet resistance elsewhere. They’re willing to be on the leading edge, which allows us to challenge ourselves and think very creatively.” 

Amy Spooner