‘Spider-Verse’ Duo Speaks at Dartmouth 2023 Commencement

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Filmmakers Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, President Hanlon star on stage.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller speak at the Dartmouth 2023 Commencement
Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, Oscar-winning filmmakers who met at Dartmouth, deliver their joint Commencement address on Sunday morning. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

It was a day of joyous celebration, sweet farewells and, in the Commencement address from Oscar-winning filmmakers Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, comic relief.

Under breezy, sunny skies, to the tune of bagpipes and a brass quintet, 12,000 people gathered on the Green for Sunday’s commencement. More than 1,200 undergraduates and almost 800 graduate and professional school students received degrees. The undergraduates hailed from 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and from 46 countries.

Lord and Miller, who met at Dartmouth almost 30 years ago, are the writers and producers of the blockbuster Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse, which has grossed $390 million globally since being released less than two weeks ago.

But they steered clear of road-to-success stories, choosing instead to tally early failures.

“We don’t call them failures,” Miller said. “We call them mistakulearnings, catastriumphs,” said Lord who, with his partner, went on to name a string of their TV shows that got cancelled. 

“But don’t worry,” Miller assured the graduates. “You’re not going to fail like we did. You’re each going to fail in your own unique ways.”

“And that’s OK,” said Lord. “It’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Whatever happens, he urged the graduates to “make space in your life for art.”

Miller added, “Art is often very silly but it is not frivolous. People have been going into dark caves to see paintings and hear stories told with light for 30,000 years, at least—longer than people have been eating bread.”

And true art, the partners agreed, is made by people, not artificial intelligence.

“AI is a really useful tool, but it can’t have an idea,” Miller said. “It’s a derivative plagiarism machine that is about as creative as a paintbrush—which is also a useful tool. But it isn’t very smart.”

Students celebrate commencement at Dartmouth
Native Americans at Dartmouth co-presidents Aaní Perkins ’23 and Ahnili Johnson-Jennings ’23, third and fourth from left, join with Commencement marshals in singing “Alma Mater” at Commencement. Perkins was also a marshal. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Long before the advent of AI, Lord and Miller learned their craft at Dartmouth from David Ehrlich, a professor emeritus of film and media studies.

“He has made artists out of engineers and physicists, because he told us all we were wonderful,” said Lord. “David’s idea is that art isn’t just for Gertrude Stein, or Nelson Rockefeller. It should be commonplace. And the people who make it should be everywhere.”

Following instructions they said they got from Dartmouth trustee and CNN Anchor Jake Tapper ’91 (who gave the 2017 commencement address), Lord and Miller tag-teamed rapid-fire advice, including:

“Nostalgia is a weapon. Don’t spend too much time looking back. Look ahead. Except when you’re backing a car out of a driveway, that’s a good time to look back.”

“ You are the most resilient, creative, informed, imaginative generation there has ever been. You can and will imagine a better world than what we came up with. You will help us imagine goodness.”

Valedictory from President Hanlon

For President Philip J. Hanlon ’77, it was his final Commencement speech, capping a decade-long tenure.

In his valedictory address, President Hanlon recalled first seeing “this sacred place” in the summer of 1972, as a “shy, introverted high school junior from a small town in the Adirondack Mountains.”

Phil Hanlon and Gail Gentes leave Commencement 2023
President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 and Gail Gentes leave the Green after the final Commencement of his presidency. The couple received honorary degrees, and Hanlon spoke of the strength and bonds of the Dartmouth family. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

He spoke of the enduring friendships he made, and said Dartmouth students all receive two special parting gifts as they graduate.

“The first is the gift of the Dartmouth family. I know of no stronger community in all of higher education than ours. Welcome to the cult!” Hanlon said.

“Rarely have I met a Dartmouth alum who didn’t say that their best friends in life are their Dartmouth friends. I know mine are. And look no further than Phil Lord and Chris Miller to see how Dartmouth friendships can change your life.”

The second gift, Hanlon said, “is a transformed quality of mind.”

He advised graduates to use their knowledge and education to cut through “a world where too often, opinions dominate and evidence and reason are dismissed. As Iris Murdoch put it, ‘We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.’ You can do it. Your Dartmouth education has prepared you for that task.”

Hanlon received warm and sustained applause after his speech.

Student Speakers

Students also took the stage at Commencement.

Ahnili Johnson-Jennings ’23 and Aaní Perkins ’23, co-presidents of Native Americans at Dartmouth, gave the traditional welcome, recalling the founding of Dartmouth with the vital assistance of the Rev. Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan tribe.

“As we and this institution embark on our next chapters, we must remember that if we are willing to learn from one another and deal honestly and justly, we can enhance our communities at home and abroad,” said Johnson-Jennings. “And here at Dartmouth, on the homelands of the Abenaki people, we are lucky to have had the privilege to learn from one another.”

Jonathan Lee Dartmouth ’23 on the Jumbotron
Jonathan Lee ’23 was the valedictorian speaker. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

The valedictory was delivered by Jonathan Lee ’23, one of the 13 valedictorians. A mathematics major modified with computer science and a James O. Freedman Presidential Scholar, Lee spoke about cherished Dartmouth traditions such as Homecoming and Winter Carnival, about the camaraderie he found in the game of pong, and about his favorite teacher, Associate Professor of Computer Science Deeparnab Chakrabarty.

“You embody the rigorous, logical thinking that we need more of in the world, and I hope to continue applying what I’ve learned in my future work in computer science,” Lee said, urging his classmates to “seek out those you inspire you, who push you to grow, and who make you feel like you belong.”

Honorary Degrees: A Turnabout

Before President Hanlon awarded honorary degrees to Lord and Miller and to four leaders in the fields of engineering, sociology, medicine, and environmental law, he and his wife, Gail Gentes, received their own honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from Elizabeth Lempres ’83, Thayer ’84, who chairs the Board of Trustees.

About Gentes, Lempres read from the citation, “As a champion of experiential learning, compassionate and engaged community member, and the wise and devoted partner to Dartmouth’s 18th President, your impact on Dartmouth, the Upper Valley and, indeed, the world has earned you the admiration and appreciation of your Dartmouth family forever.”

Lempres praised Hanlon for, among other virtues, “Your unwavering commitment to building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus and to instilling a culture of prioritization and reallocation further elevated the success of the institution. And you never lost sight of the most important work of the College–teaching–dedicating yourself fully to students in the role of caring professor every year of your tenure.”

Hanlon then presented honorary degrees to:

Doctor of Science

Doctor of Arts

Doctor of Humane Letters

  • Benjamin Wilson ’73, retired chair, Beveridge & Diamond, PC, and a former member of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees
View from above of Dartmouth Commencement
Graduates file onto the Green at the start of Commencement. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Following the ceremony, Lucan White ’23, a philosophy major and member of the squash team from Belmont, Mass., said he enjoyed Lord and Miller’s address, especially because he has done stand-up comedy at Dartmouth, and hopes to do more of it, after finishing a four-month internship with a venture capital firm.

“The filmmakers really inspired me to just do whatever I like,” he said. “It’s just about doing what you’ve got, to the best of your ability, and loving it enough to just keep doing it.”

Charlotte Albright