March 21, 2019  

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“Exploring the Borderland of Fact and Fantasy” Theme for Southern Miss’s 2018-19 University Forum Series

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University Forum at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has challenged its audiences to discover new ideas and explore the world we live in by bringing world-renowned speakers to Hattiesburg for more than 40 years. This year, employing the theme ‘Exploring the Borderland of Fact and Fantasy,” the series features six speakers who investigate and defy physical, political, and psychological borders.

On Sept.18, University Forum opens with a talk by Susannah Cahalan, who was successfully pursuing her dream to become a reporter when suddenly everyday tasks became more difficult. She became increasingly paranoid, and her behavior became erratic. It would take months of misdiagnoses before Dr. Souhel Najjar diagnosed her with a rare autoimmune disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which caused her body to attack the reasoning and emotional centers of the brain. 

“Her brain,” Dr. Najjar told Cahalan’s distressed parents, “was on fire.”  Cahalan recovered and wrote a memoir, Brain on Fire that was recently made into a Netflix film.  She will recount her story in Bennett Auditorium at 6:30 p.m., and after her Forum address will be joined onstage by Southern Miss alumna Jasmine Whiteside, who in 2013 was diagnosed with the same disease, and spent six months in a coma. 

*Following Cahalan’s visit, University Forum has partnered with the Rayborn Lecture Series in the USM Department of Physics and Astronomy to bring astrophysicist David Nathaniel Spergel to Southern Miss Oct. 2. Spergel was named one of the 25 most significant people “in space” by Time Magazine and won a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2001. The Princeton professor and NASA advisor will discuss how five basic numbers that describe the age, shape, and composition of our “simple and strange” universe make it possible to predict the distribution of galaxies. 

*On Oct. 23, Jose Antonio Vargas will talk about immigration. After winning a Pulitzer Prize as part of a reporting team at The Washington Post, Vargas revealed he was an undocumented immigrant.  In the years that have followed, he has become one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for Dreamers, young men and women brought to the United States as children who do not have citizenship. Vargas wrote, produced, and directed the autobiographical 2013 film Documented and the 2015 MTV documentary White People. His memoir, Dear America, is due out this fall.

Forum continues in spring 2019 with three speakers who explore our relationship to each other and the natural world.

*On Feb. 12, Sarah Smarsh will speak about her new book, Heartland, a memoir of growing up in Kansas among the working poor. Smarsh challenges our assumptions about poverty in the “flyover states.” 

*The head of the Environmental Protection Agency during President Barack Obama’s second term, Gina McCarthy, will be the University Forum presenter March 26. McCarthy will speak about climate change and the environment during the Obama administration, and how things are changing in the Trump administration. 

*Marine archeologist and explorer Robert Ballard will speak April 16 about discovering the Titanic in 1985, and his subsequent discoveries of storied ships such as aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109.

“Forum explores the borderlines between what is known and what is soon to be discovered, and this year we invite southern Mississippi to hear six speakers who are forging new paths,” said Dr. Andrew Haley, associate professor of history and director of University Forum.

“We will consider the boundaries between sanity and insanity, look at how nations police their frontiers, and consider how global climate change defies borders. Our speakers will ask us to look afresh at familiar places, and will take us to the furthest reaches of the galaxy and the bottom of the ocean.”

All University Forum presentations are Tuesday evenings at 6:30 p.m. The first six Forums will be held in Bennett Auditorium. Robert Ballard’s April 16 address will be held in the Mannoni Performing Arts Center. Presented by the Southern Miss Honors College, University Forum is free and open to the public.

For more information about University Forum, visit or join the discussion online at Facebook (Southern Miss Forum) and Twitter (@USMForum).  For questions about the series, contact Dr. Haley at