Bus company serving University of Illinois criticized for ‘racist and bigoted’ ad

urban bus company that operates a shuttle at U. of I. draws condemnation from university, other groups for ad that took aim at Chinese students. (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune)

A bus company that runs shuttles between college campuses and the Chicago area drew strong rebukes for a racially charged ad that took a swipe at the number of Chinese students attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The ad from Suburban Express, sent Saturday via email, was publicizing routes being offered during the U. of I.’s Christmas break, according to screenshots provided by a university spokeswoman. The ad listed 11 benefits of choosing the Champaign-based company for trips from Urbana-Champaign to various Chicago suburb

The seventh “perk,” sandwiched between the efficiency of drivers and cleanliness of coaches, read:

“Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

Noting the swift backlash, the company responded with a second email entitled “Apology.”

“We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students,” the message began. “The remark is being interpreted as a slap in the face of all non-caucasians for some reason, and that it not how it was intended.”

It was not clear what competitor the company was referring to. No specific company was named.

The message continued, shifting to criticism of the university’s admission policies for international students. The message wrongly stated nearly 20 percent of U. of I. students are from China and that the university was admitting them because they pay higher tuition.

About 5,900 U. of I. students are from China as of fall 2017, according to university data. That comprises 12 percent of the overall student body.

“We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable,” the message states. “But we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.”

It concludes: “In any event, we did not intend to offend half the planet.”

“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 Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs read. “We cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community. 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 company can and does operate stops on campus, U. of I. spokeswoman Robin Kaler added the company frequently violates school policy not to post advertisements in classrooms and on university property.

Other groups also castigated the company.

“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 Asian Pacific American Association said in a statement posted to Facebook on Saturday.

The Illini Democrats called on authorities to investigate the company for its ad and encouraged students not to patronize the company.

“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 group said in a Facebook statement 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.”

This is not the first time Suburban Express has come under fire.

The company controversially filed small claims lawsuits against at least 124 students during a six-month period in 2012 and 2013, seeking to collect fines for violations like boarding the wrong bus, using tickets on the wrong date or seeking refunds for unused tickets. The company contended those passengers violated the terms and conditions of their tickets, subjecting them to the fines.

The company later reversed course and dropped all its suits.

Then in 2014, Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen was charged with harassing customers who had posted stinging reviews of his company. Lake County authorities alleged Toeppen posted lewd statements about two customers on Reddit.

Shortly after Toeppen posted bond, his company revived its small claims case against one of the students.

Toeppen was found not guilty of one of the harassment charges in June 2016, according to the Champaign News-Gazette. It was not immediately clear how the second case was adjudicated.

The company long has drawn ire for its “page of shame,” which publishes names and personal information for customers it says cheated on bus fares. An editorial from student paper The Daily Illini, which frequently has covered incidents and controversies related to the Suburban Express, said the company banned its staff from using its services.

Toeppen could not be reached for comment.

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rhodes_dawn

Summary
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Bus company serving University of Illinois criticized for 'racist and bigoted' ad