The University of Massachusetts Amherst

John McCarthy, Provost Emeritus and Distinguished Professor

John McCarthy, Provost Emeritus and Distinguished Professor

John McCarthy, Provost Emeritus and Distinguished Professor 

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. He served as Provost for five years, from July 2017  to July 2022, after which he became Provost Emeritus. Among his achievements as Provost:


  • Instruction. In the 2020-2021 academic year, we provided our students with nearly three quarters of a million student credit hours of instruction. Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, this number is only one-tenth of one percent less than in the previous year, and it is 2.5% more than the year before that. It took the efforts of the entire campus, both staff and faculty, to pull this off. 
  • Performance. Despite the pandemic, our students continued to perform superbly on key metrics: the first-to-second year retention rate for the cohort entering in Fall 2020 is 91%, the same as pre-pandemic. the most recent 4-year graduation rate is 76%, down only one point from the pre-pandemic peak.  The 6-year graduation rate is 84%, continuing a multi-year trend of improvement.
  • Academic Programs. In my time as Provost, we have launched degree programs in Biomedical Engineering, Veterinary Technology, Public Policy, Finance, Informatics, Data Analytics & Computational Social Science, Materials Science & Engineering, Managerial Economics, and Interdisciplinary Studies. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

  • Students. The Fall 2021 entering class is the most diverse ever: 37% are ALANA (African American/Black, Latinx, Asian, Hawai’ian/Pacific Islander, and Native American), and 19% are from historically underrepresented groups (African American/Black, Latinx, Hawai’ian/Pacific Islander, and Native American). (These percentages and those cited in the next bullet were calculated using the standard methodology, which excludes non-US nationals from the denominator.)
  • Faculty. Over the past four academic years, 22.1% of the newly hired tenure-system faculty are from those same historically underrepresented groups. In the previous four years, the fraction was only 5.9%. As a result of this hiring record and aggressive, creative efforts at retention, the number of tenure-system faculty from the historically underrepresented groups has increased from 95 to 110 over the same period.
  • Deans. Three of the deans entered their positions at the same time when I became Provost and the other nine were recruited by me, so it can be said that I on-boarded all the current deans. The deanery is now more diverse in gender and race/ethnicity than it has ever been: ten of the twelve deans are women and five are persons of color.


  • Pandemic accommodations. Through an unprecedented collaboration among Academic Personnel, the Office of Faculty Development, the MSP, and the ADVANCE grant, our campus put into place policies and practices that have made us a national model of support for faculty during the pandemic.
  • Support for remote instruction. An equally unprecedented collaboration among the Center for Teaching & Learning, the Instructional Design, Engagement, & Support (IDEAS) group, the Libraries, and IT supported faculty throughout the transition to remote instruction and beyond.
  • Innovations in faculty support.
    - A more expansive view of the criteria for promotion to full professor.
    - A careful analysis of data from the COACHE survey of faculty job satisfaction.
    - Nominations of faculty for honorific awards.
    - Professional improvement leaves for lecturers (negotiated with MSP).
    - Reinstitution of the spouse/partner hiring program under a sustainable budget model.
    - Creation of the offices of Faculty Development and the Associate Provost for Equity & Inclusion
    - Leadership development through the selection of Chancellor’s Leadership Fellows and participants in the HERS Institutes. 
Provost McCarthy's Communications 

Please click here to read Provost McCarthy's communications.