Provost McCarthy grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, receiving his BA from Harvard and his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After spending four years at the University of Texas Austin and two years at AT&T Bell Labs, he joined the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1985 as an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics. In 2007, he was named Distinguished University Professor.
McCarthy is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and several National Science Foundation grants, and he is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Cognitive Science Society, and the Linguistic Society of America.
His work as a linguist is in the areas of phonology and morphology – the study of the structure of sound systems and words – with a focus on the Semitic languages. He is best known in the field of linguistics for his research on Optimality Theory, a model of human linguistic knowledge based on ranked, violable constraints.
A dedicated teacher of both undergraduates and graduate students, McCarthy is a recipient of the university’s highest teaching award, and his former PhD students honored him with a Festschrift entitled Phonological Argumentation: Essays on Evidence and Motivation.
Throughout his faculty career, McCarthy was active in the UMass Amherst Faculty Senate and its councils and committees, eventually rising to one of the senate’s top leadership positions. He also served two terms as head of his department. McCarthy entered upper academic administration in 2011 as special assistant to the provost, with responsibilities that included encouraging interdisciplinary activity and assessment of doctoral programs. In 2012, he became dean of the Graduate School, and held two administrative positions as dean and as senior vice provost for Academic Affairs.