NORMAL — The Illinois attorney general's office is looking into a shuttle service that serves college students for possible state Human Rights Act violations.
Suburban Express, a Champaign-Urbana-based transportation company, came under scrutiny after an ad sent via email listed among its advantages, “Passengers like you. You don't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses.”
Another email, responding to complaints about the ad, questioned the number of Chinese students at the University of Illinois, stating that the number of “nonnative English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.”
Although the ad targeted U of I students — prompting a number of complaints — the company also serves other campuses, including Illinois State University.
The buses run on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays between ISU's Bone Student Center in Normal and two suburban Chicago locations.
ISU spokesman Eric Jome said the university had not received any complaints regarding Suburban Express but he characterized the company's comments as “patently offensive and inappropriate in any context.”
“We are an open and inclusive campus and diversity is one of our core values. This runs counter to the values of our institution,” said Jome.
He said ISU officials are watching the story as it unfolds.
In a statement posted on its website, Suburban Express said it welcomes students of all nationalities and said, “We apologize for our insensitive statement, and we hope to do a better job of unifying the campus community in the future.”
The civil rights office of the attorney general's office has subpoenaed documents and other information from Suburban Express to “help determine whether the company's policies and practices violate the Illinois Human Rights Act.”
Attorney General Lisa Madigan said, “I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers.”
She noted, “Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person's race of national origin.”
The statement from the bus company said an incident in 2013, which the company believes unfairly caused it to be labeled as racist, resulted in many students from countries in Asia abandoning Suburban Express.
The company said that's why “we mentioned that Suburban Express riders would not encounter Chinese exchange students on our buses.” However, the company added that the statement was “ill-advised … because it upset the very people we were sad to have lost.”