Controversial ad spurs demand for Council hearings on Suburban Express

SHARE Controversial ad spurs demand for Council hearings on Suburban Express

Ald. Ameya Pawar h| Sun-Times file photo

A bus company serving college students should be stripped of its right to make pickups and drop-offs at O’Hare Airport for releasing an ad offensive to Chinese students and compounding the offense with an even more insulting “apology,” an influential alderman said Monday.

Two months after dropping out of the Democratic race for governor, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) is jumping into the racially charged controversy surrounding Suburban Express, the Champaign-based company that shuttles college students from six colleges in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa to and from the Chicago area.

Pawar, chairman of the City Council’s Asian-American Caucus, wants the Aviation Committee to hold hearings on the incident that could culminate in Suburban Express being evicted from O’Hare.

“O’Hare is one of the busiest airports on the planet. It is the gateway to Chicago. Sort of the welcome mat. Do we want companies like Suburban Express serving that gateway — a company that blatantly makes racist and xenophobic statements?” Pawar said.

“There appears to be a normalization of this type of behavior from corporate America. It’s time to push back . . . There are other companies out there that would love to serve travelers at O’Hare Airport. It wouldn’t be that difficult to find a different operator.”

Meanwhile, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office announced Monday that it had issued subpoenas to Suburban Express as part of an inquiry to determine if the company had violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.

“Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person’s race or national origin,” Madigan said in a statement. “My office is investigating to determine whether Suburban Express’ policies and practices violate the law.”

Suburban Express touched off the political firestorm with a recent email to University of Illinois students traveling home during the Christmas holidays.

“You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses,” the ad stated.

The ad was greeted by an immediate and predictable backlash from a student body with a significant portion of students from China. The company then sent an “apology” that made matters worse.

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

The so-called apology then launched into a sweeping condemnation of U. of I. admissions policies that, the company claimed, have tilted the scales in favor of students from outside the U.S.

“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. Nearly 20 percent of U. of I. students are natives of China. This percentage of non-native English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students,” the company wrote.

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

The botched apology prompted Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen to send a second apology to the Daily Illini and to university officials quoted in the student newspaper as condemning the company.

In it, Toeppen said the promotional email was “ill-advised” because it “upset the very people we were sad to have lost” to a competitor. He also apologized for the tone of the first apology.

“Suburban Express welcomes students of all nationalities on our buses. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to further their own agenda. We apologize for our insensitive statement, and we hope to do a better job of unifying the campus community in the future, from our office in the heart of campus town,” Toeppen wrote.

Pawar noted that it’s not the first time that Suburban Express has been in hot water with its customers.

“They have a web page where they shame customers. They’ve had a record of hiring bus drivers and personnel who would make disparaging comments about people who ride the bus…Their reputation precedes them,” he said.

According to Pawar, the company operates at O’Hare under the name, “Illini Shuttle.”

The Daily Illini responded to the latest controversy with a weekend editorial condemning Suburban Express for what it called its “brutal discrimination and false claims against international students” who “only benefit” the student experience at the U. of I.

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