Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan opened a civil rights investigation into the practices of a transportation company that runs shuttle buses from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the Chicago area Monday after the company sent a racially-charged ad insulting the school’s Chinese students.
Suburban Express, which services six universities in the Midwest, sent customers the email ad on Saturday morning to promote its Christmas break bus schedules.
The ad, which has since drawn significant criticism, listed 11 reasons students should choose the company for rides from the school’s central Illinois campus to various stops across Chicago’s suburbs.
Among those reasons – which included clean buses and experienced drivers – was “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
Shortly thereafter, Suburban Express sent a second email once the first “received some negative feedback.”
Titled “Apology,” the additional message served as a commentary on the University of Illinois’ international population that some derided as equally, if not more offensive, than the initial ad itself.
“We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students,” the second email read. “The remark is being interpreted as a slap in the face of all non-caucasians for some reason, and that it [sic] not how it was intended.”
“We must concede that we disagree with the way the University of Illinois is being run. U of I is a state school that is funded by taxpayers and is built on land granted by the people of the State of Illinois. As such, we believe that the mission of the University of Illinois should be providing high-quality, affordable education to the citizens of Illinois,” the message continued.
“U of I mismanagement over the past few decades has put them in a financial bind. To solve the problem, they admit large numbers of international students who pay higher tuition,” the company said, before incorrectly stating that nearly 20 percent of the school’s students were from China – a figure that the message claimed “places a variety of burdens on domestic students.”
Roughly 11,000 of the school’s 45,000 current students are international, NBC News reported, with about 6,000 of the total undergraduate and graduate student population coming from China.
“We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder,” the message added, concluding, “In any event, we did not intend to offend half the planet.”
The university issued a strongly-worded statement Sunday rebuking the Suburban Express ad.
The company has “a long history of taking advantage of students, staff and faculty,” school administrators claimed, adding that the email “once again demonstrated the company’s disregard and disdain towards the values of inclusivity that define our university.”
“The message specifically insulted members of our Chinese, Asian and Asian American communities who are a vital and valued part of every aspect of both the University of Illinois and our local cities. These types of racist and bigoted statements attacking any members of our community deserve nothing but condemnation from all of us,” the statement from the school’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs said. School officials said the institution has no business relationship with Suburban Express and that the company was not allowed to pick up or drop off passengers on university property.
“We cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community,” the statement read. “But we can, loudly and unambiguously, say that the opinions expressed by Suburban Express are offensive, bigoted, insulting and in direct opposition to the values of this university. And we would encourage any potential future customers of this transport company to carefully investigate its record and customer concerns before using its services.”
While the school did not offer specific details on its allegation that the company has taken advantage of the university community, this weekend’s events were not the first time Suburban Express’ practices sparked controversy.
Founded in 1983 by Dennis Toeppen, who was a sophomore at the University of Illinois at the time, Suburban Express filed more than 100 lawsuits in 2013, seeking payment from customers the company alleged violated the “terms of a written contract” they agreed to when purchasing their fare. Those infractions ranged from boarding a bus at the wrong stop, using duplicate tickets, or seeking a refund, among others. The company later dropped those lawsuits, filed in Ford County.
Suburban Express continued to use its website to chastise customers, using a now-deleted “Page of Shame” on which the names, addresses and contact information of so-called “bad customers” were posted, an archived version of the site shows.
The site contained dozens of what the company designated as “fare cheaters” and customers with “dishonored payments,” as well as people who were banned from using the service. Some of the customers’ names were accompanied by descriptions, such as “morally and ethically challenged, in our opinion,” or in the case of one student, “We believe customer is mentally unstable based on her activities” on the internet forum Reddit.
Suburban Express went on to designate an entirely separate page to the student’s posts on Reddit and Wikipedia, alleging that she had “a full-blown obsession” with the company and seemed to “specialize in making unsubstantiated claims about every topic she discusses,” in response to the student negative online reviews of the company.
Also on the “banned list” was an entire family from suburban Highland Park, on the basis that “We find them to be generally unpleasant, if not insane, people and we do not want them anywhere near our buses or offices,” the website read.
That family was involved in a dispute with Toeppen in 2014 that resulted in two misdemeanor charges of electronic harassment against him, after a then-student posted online about a 2013 incident he witnessed in which a bus driver yelled at another customer, according to the Champaign News-Gazette.
Toeppen was found not guilty in 2016, the News-Gazette reported.
Suburban Express addressed that case, as well as the lawsuits and the controversial email campaign in a yet another statement issued Sunday.
The company claimed it has “consistently held students to their commitments and promise” in an approach that “has not been popular with cheaters,” a small number of which the company claimed has taken to social media to “amplify their complaining and anger.”
The statement then drew a connection between the 2013 incident that led to the criminal case and the racially charged ad, saying the altercation involved an employee of a subcontracted bus company making an “inappropriate comment to a non-english-speaking-customer.”
“We agreed that the comment was inappropriate and we promptly apologized,” the company continued. “Nevertheless, a student agitator made it his full-time job to tell the world that Suburban Express is racist based on the comment which we agreed was inappropriate, and for which we apologized.”
The statement went on to say that the entire spectacle “caused many students from countries in Asia to abandon Suburban Express and ride a competing company.”
“We were very saddened by the loss of those riders. We meant them no harm, and we felt we were being unjustly punished,” the company added. “When we wrote a recent promotional email, we mentioned that Suburban Express riders would not encounter Chinese exchange students on our buses. That's because they all ride our competitor now. It was an ill-advised statement to make, because it upset the very people we were sad to have lost.”
Suburban Express said the organization welcomes students of all nationalities and “anyone who says otherwise is trying to further their own agenda,” before apologizing for the “insensitive statement.”
Still, the email sparked widespread condemnation.
The editorial board of the Daily Illini, the University of Illinois’ campus newspaper, posted an editorial decrying the email and encouraging students to “seek other forms of transportation rather than support a vile company such as Suburban Express.”
“Equating the benefits of ‘allowing fuzzy slippers’ and ‘refundable tickets’ with the ability to board a bus with ‘passengers that look like you’ (which apparently just means ‘not-Asian’) is frankly dehumanizing and disgusting to our Asian classmates and friends,” the school’s Asian Pacific American Coalition said in a response posted on Facebook.
Chicago Alderman and former gubernatorial candidate Ameya Pawar also joined the chorus of those condemning the company’s message, writing on Facebook, “This is not an apology.”
“This is an unbelievably offensive and bigoted response. Shame on you,” Pawar continued. “Since you serve O'Hare International Airport, I am going to call for a hearing on your business practices. In them [sic] meantime, you may want to issue a real apology.”
“While the questionable practices of Suburban Express are nothing new for the student community at the University of Illinois, derogatory references to Asian students are a new low, and completely unacceptable,” the Illini Democrats added Saturday. “To suggest that international students’ value is purely economical is a bigoted attack on the diversity of our campus. International students never have presented ‘a variety of burdens’ to our community, unlike Suburban Express.”
The group called on Madigan to open an investigation, which her office’s Civil Rights Bureau did Monday, according to a release from the Illinois attorney general.
Madigan issued a subpoena to Suburban Express over “potential civil rights violations,” seeking “documents, records and information that will help determine whether the company’s policies and practices violate the Illinois Human Rights Act.”
“I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers,” Madigan said in the release. “Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person’s race or national origin. My office is investigating to determine whether Suburban Express’ policies and practices violate the law.”
Suburban Express was directed to reply within 30 days, Madigan said, adding that anyone wishing to file a complaint may do so online or by calling the Civil Rights Hotline at (877) 581-3692.